Image: Car Accident © George Doyle-Stockbyte-Getty Images

1. "When I say this is a good policy, I mean it's good for me."

Although agents can help you navigate auto policies, some may not have your best interests at heart. Often, large auto and home insurers use "contingent" commissions to compensate agents who sold their policies. These fees come in two types: "steering" commissions, for signing customers with a particular carrier, and profit-based commissions, when clients don't file a lot of costly claims. The concern with the former is that unscrupulous agents push certain policies to reap larger commissions; with the latter, they might delay or discourage claims.

How can you protect yourself? Ask about commissions, and have prospective agents explain their recommendations.

2. "Young drivers can't catch a break."

Statistics show that drivers under age 25, especially males, are in a high-risk group and have difficulty getting insured. But the specifics are startling: Drivers in New York under age 19 pay a median auto insurance rate that is more than 100% higher than drivers ages 60 to 74, according to a 2009 survey published on

It typically takes three years of driving experience to be quoted a lower rate, according to But there are other ways to ensure a better rate in the short term. For example, avoid sports cars and opt for a car with a lower engine capacity.

Also, ask your insurer for ways to score a lower premium.

According to information posted on, some insurers will give a lower rate to young drivers who complete defensive-driving courses.

3. "Spotty credit? That'll cost you."

Since the 1990s, insurers have discovered a strong correlation between low credit scores and lots of claims. Today, more than 90% of insurers use credit histories in their underwriting, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York. Although consumer advocates say that unfairly penalizes the poor, it can also bite the middle class, says Birny Birnbaum, the executive director at the Center for Economic Justice. After all, "87% of families in bankruptcy are there because of a job loss, medical catastrophe or divorce," he says.

Because many insurers do factor in credit histories, it's important to get a credit report from each of the three major bureaus -- TransUnion, Experian and Equifax -- and check them for errors before you shop for insurance. (Free reports are available once a year from

4. "How do we set premiums? That's for us to know and you to find out."

As insurers continue to adopt complex pricing systems, not everyone is seeing savings. Why the disparity? For starters, premiums vary widely by state. According to a 2007 study from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the average yearlong policy in 2005 cost $949, ranging from a low of $664 in Iowa to a high of $1,343 in the District of Columbia.

What has muddied the waters even further are the formulas used to set premiums for individuals. Twenty years ago, most insurers sorted customers into four or five pricing tiers, based on where they lived, their ages and their driving records. Over the past decade, hundreds of variables have been added to the mix, including credit histories, homeownership and limits on past policies. Because each insurer interprets these variables differently, it's even tougher for consumers to get a handle on the system.

5. "Your repaired car might look and run like new, but it's worth a lot less."

As many policyholders know, when the other party's insurer is paying for repairs after an accident, you have the right to opt for original manufacturer parts instead of generic after-market ones. But even with the best parts and service in the world, a fully repaired vehicle will often be worth less as a used car or trade-in than an identical car without the accident history.