(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Mitch Lipka
June 25 (Reuters) - When Jonathan G. Stein became unhappy with his long-time car insurance carrier earlier this year, the 41-year-old lawyer from Elk Grove, California switched to a new company.
How was he rewarded for his disloyalty after nine years? With savings of about $300 a year and a boost in his under-insured motorist coverage.
Despite discounts for long-term customers, studies show that you can get lower premiums on car insurance by shopping around rather than sticking with one company, and the savings can be significant.
The Texas Office of Public Insurance Counsel did a study showing that a consumer who has stuck with the same auto insurer for eight years could reduce the premium by 19 percent by switching.
“It is disappointing to think your loyalty to a company can hurt you,” says Carol Lachnit, features editor for automotive website Edmunds.com.
Even when rewarding loyalty with a percentage off, insurers may use a practice called price optimization that considers a number of factors beyond risk, including what pricetag they think you will tolerate.
“They’re sort of measuring how likely you are to resist a price increase to your premium,” Lachnit says.
Still, many consumers stick it out. Jonathan Stein, for one, has only had three car insurers in his adult life.
“I did get a loyalty discount, but each time I switched, it was because I received better coverage for less money,” he says.
Others take a different view.
Linda Carlson has stuck with USAA for more than 10 years because of what she considers exemplary customer service.
The Seattle resident ticked off a series of accidents and other problems over the years, including a crash, and how pleased she was with the way USAA handled them. Her husband has used the company since 1970.
Other customers are simply lulled into staying.
A recent survey by customer satisfaction measurement company J.D. Power and Associates found that even though auto insurance rates increased by 2.1 percent last year and 2.5 percent in 2013, a relatively small percentage of customers switched carriers.
About 39 percent of those surveyed said they did check on other insurers’ prices, but just over a quarter of those who price-shopped actually switched.
“You have to look at your own pocketbook and your own budget and decide,” Edmunds.com’s Lachnit says.
Lachnit says it makes sense to shop around every few years. It is important, though, to keep a list of your coverage in front of you to be sure you are comparing apples to apples.
Also keep in mind that not every insurer offers the same level of service or enjoys the same reputation. It is worth checking on the complaint history of a particular company through your state's insurance commission, she says. A list is available (www.naic.org/state_web_map.htm) through the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
If someone offers you a better rate and you would rather not switch, Jeanne Salvatore, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, says it will not hurt to go back to your insurer and let them know about the lower quote. Auto insurance it not the same as a lot of industries that routinely haggle with customers, but there is no harm in trying, she says.
The only consumers who might not benefit from comparison shopping are those with bad driving records because they will have fewer choices, Salvatore says.
She recommends asking for every available discount, whether you are staying or going. These include such things as bundling multiple policies, good driving records, certain vehicle-safety features, paying in a lump sum, being a student with good grades, and belonging to certain membership or affinity groups. (Editing by Beth Pinsker and Lisa Von Ahn)