After your car has been damaged in an accident, you may be more worried about how long it will take to get your vehicle back on the highway than finding the very best auto body shop to do the repair work.
Auto insurance companies often offer to ease your burden by sending you to members of their "preferred provider" repair networks. They say they have screened these businesses to make sure they will do the best possible job for a reasonable price.
"It really is about convenience to the customer," says Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the California Insurance Information Network.
What is a preferred provider auto body shop?
Because insurers handle many auto repair claims, they say they can identify the repair shops with the best reputations and repair records.
Amy Bach, executive director of the United Policyholders consumer group, holds that insurance companies aren't motivated only by a desire to make life easier for their policyholders, however.
By creating networks of preferred provider auto body shops, they also are able to control their costs, she says.
"There generally is a reason the insurance companies want to send you to a particular shop," Bach says. "It is almost always because that shop is charging them a lower price."
But why might this be bad for the consumer?
Preferred providers often offer discounts to make sure the insurance companies they work with continue to send them their business, says Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability, a nonprofit group based in California. Such body auto shops may feel pressured to cut corners on repairs in order to hold down prices, she adds.
Insurance companies "want to give you the impression that they are doing you a big favor, when really it's about cutting costs," Shahan says.
Bach agrees. "It has been our experience that there is a reason that they are cheaper," she says. "It may not be the highest quality repair.”
Michael Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, holds that creating networks of preferred provider body shops helps both the insurer and the insured. The insurance company knows the work will be done properly at a reasonable cost and the insured gets quality work that is backed by the insurance company.
"Auto insurers have a relationship with certain companies," Barry says. "They feel confident they can stand behind their work."
Don't feel pressured
J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America, notes that insurers typically offer to guarantee the work performed by preferred providers in their networks. They also may warn you that there will be no guarantee if you choose your own repair shop.
"There is a lot of pressure on people to use these providers," Hunter says. "You should feel free to use anyone you want."
Barry says insurers are helping policyholders, not pressuring them. Insurers who work with preferred providers typically are advocates for their policyholders, he explains. Using these provider networks gives them more clout when it comes to demanding quality repairs. If there is a dispute over the quality of workmanship, insurance companies will be in your corner, he adds.
Many states have laws designed to make sure consumers can select their own auto body shops, known as “anti-steering laws”. A state’s department of insurance guidelines can be found online. These laws discourage insurers from steering policyholders to businesses that belong to their auto repair networks. For example, in Texas insurers aren’t allowed to suggest to policyholders -- verbally or in writing -- that they use specific repair businesses. California regulators forbid insurers from suggesting preferred providers to policyholders unless they first are asked for a recommendation.
Guidelines for using a preferred provider
Here is a checklist of things to do before agreeing to use one of your car insurance company's preferred providers:
- Get it in writing. If an insurance company tells you it will guarantee the work of a preferred provider, be sure you get it in writing, Hunter says. Otherwise you will have no way to prove such a promise was made if there is a dispute over workmanship.
- Get several estimates. Talk to repairmen at several auto body shops before you make a final decision about who will repair your car. This will give you a better idea of the level of repairs your car truly needs to be roadworthy.
- Work with people you trust. It's important to work only with people who make you feel comfortable. If you are referred to an auto body shop where the people are rude or fail to fully explain your car's repair needs, find another business to repair your car.
- Check out businesses on the Internet. There are consumer review websites that allow people to praise or complain about auto body shops. The Better Business Bureau website may be a good resource for information about how these businesses perform. If you find a strong pattern of dissatisfaction among customers for a particular business, consider finding another shop.
- Plan ahead. It's difficult to make a good decision about repair shops during the stressful period after a car accident. Shahan says you're much more likely to make a wise choice if you don't wait until you have an accident before starting your research. Ask your friends and relatives about their experiences with auto repairs, so you'll know where to find a good shop when you need one.