Beware psychologically loaded questions

A written record helps when it's time to give your statement. Don't ever do this without talking to your own insurance agent first. If you've hired a lawyer, request that all statements go through your legal representative.

When you do make a statement, watch out for loaded questions. A member of Asif Latif's family was treated rudely by a claims adjuster who "tried to get her to admit the accident was her fault." This inspired him to start the After Car Accidents website to offer tips on how to work with insurance companies.

According to Latif, an adjuster might ask things like:

  • How could you have avoided the auto crash?
  • How much do you think you are responsible?
  • Do you think the weather (snow, rain, wind or fog) affected you?
  • Did you have any previous injuries like back or neck pain before the car wreck?
  • Can we get access to your medical records and the name and address of the doctor who is treating you? (Don't do this, as it potentially gives access to your entire medical history.)

According to Gusner, an adjuster might offer to come to your home. There he or she will hit you with psychologically sneaky questions. A young mother might be asked, "You can still take care of your kids, right?"

"No mom wants to say, 'No, I'm not taking care of my kids,'" Gusner says. "The claims adjuster might be friendly and nice, and you might want to think of him as a friend. But he might get paid a bonus to settle as quickly as possible."

Don't let yourself be hurried

The faster you settle, the less likely your rights will be fully protected. Suppose a claims adjuster shows up at the scene, runs some numbers and offers you a check for $1,000 to fix your car, plus an additional $500 for the "inconvenience"?

Don't take it, advises J.D. Howard of the Insurance Consumer Advocate Network. You might have a soft-tissue injury that you can't feel right away but that three days later will hurt like a tax audit.

"Which is why the insurance claims adjuster wants to get to you as soon as possible," says Howard, himself an adjuster for 26 years.

It is possible to get those release forms set aside. But it's not a sure thing, and it costs time, aggravation and attorney's fees.

Philip Reed, a senior consumer editor at Edmunds.com, interviewed a former adjuster who recalled one accident victim who took the first offer, saying he trusted that the company would be honest.

The adjuster admitted to "almost" feeling bad about that. "I wanted to say, 'Wait! Wait! Don't you want to negotiate?' But being a good claims adjuster, I would never do that."

Refuse to be rushed. Would you take the first offer if you were buying a car instead of trying to get it fixed?

Do your homework

Depending on your situation, it can be hard not to feel rushed. Commuters need to get to work. One-car families find themselves stranded without a way to shop for necessities. People caring for elderly parents need to get Mom or Dad to a doctor.

Insurance policies generally allow for a rental car while yours is being fixed. Keep the receipts and insist on reimbursement. (More on that below.)

If you don't already have an auto shop you trust, find one pronto. (Read "Can you trust your mechanic?" on MSN Autos.) That's because a claims adjuster will almost certainly steer you toward a "preferred" repair place.

Don't go there. According to Reed, insurance companies "know they can control costs much better at certain shops" by specifying the most basic of repairs.

"You can fix a car so that it looks beautiful and works pretty well, but there might be serious problems underneath," he says.

Even if you choose the shop, be ready to hold the claims adjuster to certain standards. In March 2010, Ritter Hoy of Columbus, Ohio, was T-boned while driving her Infiniti. She declined to use the at-fault driver's "preferred" shop. Yet when she tried to sell the Infiniti about seven months later, it was found to have extensive frame damage.

Hoy called her body shop and was told the vehicle had been fixed "to the specifications of the insurance company." Ultimately, the vehicle sold for $2,500 less than its Blue Book value.

Be prepared to push back

While you're waiting to hear the repair estimate, start looking for "comps," or autos of comparable make and model. If your car is too badly damaged, it might be declared a total loss. You need to know a realistic replacement cost so you can judge whether the adjuster's offer is fair.

Last February my daughter and son-in-law were broadsided while driving the 2001 Chevrolet Cavalier I had given them when I went car-free. The repair estimate was $2,200 -- just about what the car was worth.

But it was their only form of transportation, and both have chronic illnesses that make it tough to wait for a bus on a 110-degree Phoenix day. After some back-and-forth, Abby and Tim were given $3,400, which they put toward a late-model used car. (Find the best used-car deals on MSN Autos.)

However, they neglected to ask for rental-car reimbursement. The accident plus weeks of negotiations had left them stressed and exhausted -- and forgetful. The claims adjuster didn't remind them they were entitled to repayment. His job was to save his company money.

Click here to become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook

Remember: Insurance companies are businesses. They stay in business by taking in more than they pay out. It's in their best interest to get you to accept a bare minimum, so be prepared to push back.

You might not be as lucky as I was back in the 1980s. The other guy's adjuster arranged for repairs and medical bills to be covered. He offered a cash settlement without being asked. My agent told me that's because the other driver did not contest my version of the accident.

Not because I was telling the truth, but because he wasn't: The woman in the car with him was not his wife.

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").