By Alex Glenn/

We’ve come a long way from the days when shopping for car insurance meant you had to meet with your neighborhood agent. While that’s still an option, drivers curious about how to buy car insurance today have a variety of options at their disposal, including some entirely new forms of coverage.

Buy car insurance from a captive agent

Getting car insurance quotes through a “captive” agent once was the customary way to buy coverage. Captive agents work exclusively for a single insurance company and act as your main point of contact from the day you buy your policy.

Large insurance companies, such as Allstate and State Farm, have exclusive agents in just about every state. Agents work out of their own office branches, so customers can usually find help close to home and avoid having to go through a corporate office. Liberty Mutual and Farmers are two other well-known companies that operate this way.

Because they represent just one company, captive agents may be limited in the prices and policy features they can offer, which could be off-putting for shoppers looking for more of a negotiation.

This is a good choice for you if:

  • You don’t quite know what you need and prefer to have someone guide you through your options in person.
  • You’re busy and need to manage additional insurance besides auto. Agents for large companies are usually able to offer multiline policies and walk you through the process of adding, say, homeowners or life insurance, or even insurance for your business.
  • You want familiarity and a long-lasting relationship with your insurer.

Buy car insurance from an independent agent or broker

Independent agents also have local offices in your community, but unlike captive agents, they don’t represent one single company. Instead they represent you, the customer, and work with many different providers to get the most competitive prices. Insurance brokers do business the same way but are often part of larger brokerage companies. Dozens of insurers sell through independent agents, including Travelers and American Family.

Independent agents and brokers often work on commission, which means they have motivation to provide great service and keep your business for the long haul but could also try to upsell you on policy features and coverages that you don’t need.

Good choice for you if:

  • You like the idea of dealing with an agent but want more price and coverage flexibility than captive reps can provide.
  • You have a decent understanding of how much coverage you need and can resist unnecessary add-ons.
  • You want someone who can explain the complex parts of your policy. Independent agents deal with many insurance companies and may have a greater sense for how certain regulations and contract details vary from one company or state to the next.

Get a direct quote online or by phone

Geico, Progressive and Esurance are a few well-known companies that primarily offer direct car insurance quotes to shoppers, either online or over the phone. With direct auto insurance, there is no need to seek out an agent.

Many consumers interested in direct car insurance probably favor online quotes over phone estimates for sheer convenience, although both are options. When you get a direct online quote, you can see your policy options spelled out, and you’re able to pause and resume the quoting process at your leisure. There’s no pressure or upselling — you enter your information yourself and don’t deal with agents or representatives unless you want to.

The convenience afforded by direct quotes may come at the expense of customer service. While all direct insurers have representatives to field questions, you likely won’t get responses as detailed as you would by sitting down face to face with an agent.

Good choice for you if:

  • Convenience is a top priority — you want to get from quote to coverage as quickly as possible.
  • You have a basic understanding of how auto insurance works and don’t need a personal relationship with an agent. The freedom to arrange and manage your policy on your own is appealing.
  • You want a pressure-free shopping experience.

View multiple quotes using a comparison tool

The most efficient way to get car insurance quotes from several companies at once is to use a comparison tool. By viewing estimates side by side, you can get a sense for the average quote and easily find the best deal.

Another advantage is being able to spot quotes you want to avoid. While car insurance rates vary from company to company, prices should dip only so low. Quotes that are significantly cheaper than anything else on the market should be scrutinized carefully.

Once you decide on a company, you’ll still go through the normal process of buying coverage from it, either directly or from an agent. Remember that the final price you get in a “binding quote” might be different from the estimate you get from a comparison tool or insurance company website.

Good choice for you if:

  • Getting a low rate is a top priority. NerdWallet found that drivers can save an average of $859 a year by comparing quotes.
  • You’re new to car insurance and want to get a feel for the marketplace.
  • You want to test a variety of policy options to see how they affect your quote before committing to your final coverages and limits.

Choose your car insurance type

The type of car insurance you want can also influence which insurer you go with. Besides traditional policies, there are two other coverage varieties you may want to consider: usage-based and per-mile insurance.

Traditional car insurance

Insurers determine quotes for “normal” auto policies using a variety of personal factors — including your age, gender, driving history, credit score and many others. Essentially, the greater the risk you present as a driver based on these elements, the higher your rates. You can choose to buy a minimum amount of coverage as required by state law or choose from a long menu of auto insurance coverage types.

Usage-based car insurance

Where traditional car insurers assume you drive a certain way based on your accident history and factors that correlate to risk, usage-based insurers actually want to see you in action.

If you sign up for a usage-based program, such as Progressive’s Snapshot or Allstate’s Drivewise, you’ll receive a telematic device to plug into your car. This device records your driving behavior, particularly bad habits such as hard braking or accelerating. Assuming you’re a low-risk driver, usage-based car insurance could save you money. But if, for example, you know you like to drive fast or you drive frequently late at night, it probably won’t.

Most usage-based programs aren’t available in every state. If it’s something you’re committed to, you may need to switch insurance companies if you move.

Per-mile car insurance

Per-mile insurance also uses a telematic device to track driving behavior. But unlike usage-based insurers, per-mile companies want to learn only one thing: how much or how little you use your car.

Per-mile insurance is still in its infancy. Metromile is the best-known provider, available in seven states so far — California, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington.

Per-mile insurance companies still use the same factors as traditional insurers when setting your rate, but you could see savings after using the telematic device. If you’re a city-dweller who keeps a car only for emergencies or you don’t use your vehicle for commuting, per-mile insurance may cut your premium significantly. If you drive even an average amount, however, there’s no guarantee you’ll save.

No matter how you buy insurance, first shop around

Whether you prefer to use a dedicated agent or sign up directly with an insurer, it pays to shop around. Rates for the exact same policy can swing by thousands of dollars from one company to the next, so comparing as many offers as possible is the best way to get a good deal.


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