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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 4/15/2008 6:27:24 PM ET 2008-04-15T22:27:24

Have you ever been involved in a seemingly minor fender bender? If so, did you swoon when you received the estimate for the repair costs?

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Make no mistake about it: Auto-body work can cost a small fortune. Bearing this in mind, it’s important to know how to proceed before an accident happens – especially if you end up being the driver who causes the accident.

These tips can help.

1. Brace for impact. Make sure you’re happy about where your deductible is set for collisions on your auto insurance policy. It’s often set at $500, but you may have bumped it up to $1,000 at some point – a tactic that really can help you save on insurance rates over time. Considering the high cost of auto-body repairs, though, just be prepared to pay the full deductible amount out of pocket if the accident is your fault.

2. Understand the system. Your insurer may direct you to its list of approved repair shops, which can be just fine – but be aware that those shops might be tempted to take shortcuts with your vehicle in order to save money. That’s because they will only receive pre-negotiated rates from the insurance company, and those rates might be stingy.

3. Get more than one estimate. Take good notes when the first place you visit tells you what kind of repairs you need and how much those repairs will cost. Then quickly call three or four other shops and ask how much they would charge for the exact same work. Try a variety of businesses, including independent shops, chain outlets and dealerships.

4. Know what to expect when it comes to replacement parts. Many insurance companies want repair shops to use less expensive salvage or generic replacement parts, as opposed to original-equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts, which match your vehicle exactly and cost more. You may not have much of a choice in the matter if you’re responsible for the accident – but if you’re not at fault, instruct the shop to use OEM parts.

5. How does the repair shop rate? You can visit the Web site of Assured Performance Collision Care to locate shops in your area that have been found to meet key performance standards.

6. Check the shop’s reputation and complaint history. As you zero in on a shop, check to see how many consumers have complained about it by visiting this Better Business Bureau site. You also can check with your state’s attorney general’s office or consumer affairs department. To find specific contact information for your state, click here .

7. Clarify your rental car expenses. Auto-body repairs often take longer than expected – meaning you could be stuck driving rented wheels for a long time at a potentially high cost to you. If you regularly pay a nominal monthly fee for rental-car insurance, you might only be reimbursed for the rental of a compact car. If such a small car would never work for you, it might be time to reevaluate your coverage.

8. Do you have a European car? If so, the repair shop you use should have a special certification from the car manufacturer, along with specialized equipment to fix your vehicle’s aluminum and hard steel parts. Your insurer’s approved shops may not fit the bill for your vehicle, but your insurer still should pay for such specialized repairs.

9. Don’t be unduly swayed by your insurer’s warranty. As a way of encouraging you to use a shop in its network, your insurance company may offer a warranty on replacement parts. This warranty often isn’t necessary because most shops guarantee their work and parts manufacturers guarantee their parts.

10. Make your signoff a requirement. Especially when you’re on the hook for the repair costs, politely clarify with the shop that no work should happen until you’ve authorized it first. When the time comes to pick up your car, look the bill over carefully and make sure everything matches up with the estimate you had been given and the notes you had taken earlier. If you spot anything you didn’t authorize, speak up about it.

Sources:

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