When your vehicle is totaled in an auto accident, your insurance company pays you for the car’s value – or, more accurately, it pays you for what it claims the value to be. You can put this money toward the amount you still owe on the totaled car, or you can use it to purchase a new vehicle. Nearly everyone who has been through this process can attest that the most frustrating part is accepting the auto insurance company’s assessment of your car’s value. Almost invariably, the estimate comes in much lower than you anticipated, and the amount you receive is not enough to purchase an apples-to-apples replacement. For many drivers, it is not even enough to cover what they still owe on the car.

Confounding the issue is the fact most car insurance customers are clueless as to the methodology used by insurance companies to value cars. The valuation methods of car insurers are esoteric, relying on abstract data, the specifics of which they are careful not to reveal. This information asymmetry makes it difficult for a consumer to challenge a lowball offer from a car insurance company. However, simply knowing the basics of how insurance companies value cars and the terminology they use can bring you to a more auspicious place from which to negotiate.

The Car Insurance Valuation Process

When you report a car accident to your insurance company, the company sends an adjuster to assess the damage. The adjuster’s first order of business is determining whether to classify the vehicle as totaled. An insurance company may consider the car to be totaled even if it can be fixed. Generally speaking, the company totals a car if the cost to repair it exceeds a certain percentage, usually 60 to 70%, of its value.

Assuming the vehicle is totaled, the adjuster then conducts an appraisal and assigns a value to the vehicle. The damage from the accident is not considered in the appraisal. What the adjuster seeks to estimate is what a reasonable cash offer for the vehicle would have been immediately before the accident took place.

Next, the insurance company enlists a third-party appraiser to issue its own estimate on the vehicle. This is done to minimize any appearance of impropriety or underhandedness and to subject the vehicle to a different valuation methodology. The company considers its own appraisal and that of the third party when making its…