What level car insurance you need depends on how flashy your wheels are, how dodgy your driving is, and how devastated you'd be if your car was stolen or written off.
We can help you get your head around the types of insurance on offer, the tips and traps when choosing a policy, and how to save money on your premiums.
Types of insurance
Compulsory third party (CTP)
If your car's registered then you already have compulsory third party insurance (CTP, or green slip insurance). It provides essential cover against claims for compensation if you injure or kill someone in a car accident.
- In all states and NT, apart from NSW and Queensland, CTP insurance is provided by only one state-owned or government-licensed insurer. In NSW and Queensland it's offered by a number of insurers and it pays to shop around. For an online price guide go to NSW Government Motor Accidents Authority or Queensland Government Motor Accident Insurance Commission.
- In the ACT there are four licensed CTP insurers: AAMI, Apia, GIO and NRMA.
- Think CTP is enough? It doesn't cover you for damage caused to other people's property such as you driving into a Ferrari – that's a whole lot of repair bills coming your way.
Third party property
CTP doesn't cover you for damage to other peoples' property, so if you're at fault in an accident, it helps to have cover to fix the other person's car. Third party property cover is the least expensive option after CTP. It covers you for the damage you may cause to another car and may include limited cover for damage caused to your car by an uninsured driver.
If you're under 25 and driving a 1995 Mazda 121 with a broken tape deck and an Australia-shaped coat hanger then this is probably the policy for you. Insure everyone else's car instead of your own. The money you save on premiums will have you driving something better much sooner.
Third party property, fire and theft
This also covers you if your car is stolen or burnt. It's a step up from third party, but not as broad as comprehensive insurance.
This is the car insurance equivalent of an each-way bet. You've upgraded to a 2001 Holden Berlina with a broken CD player that you tend to park in dark alleys so you're worried about it getting stolen, but you still can't justify paying for comprehensive premiums.
This is the best cover option but also the most expensive. It includes the cost of crash repairs or replacing your car, even if you're at fault.
Anyone who just can't do without four wheels at any time.
What level of car insurance do I need?
Do you really need comprehensive car insurance for an ageing rust bucket? On the one hand, you might be paying more than 10% of the car's value every year in premiums; but on the other, nobody wants to be caught underinsured.
Third party property is a good idea – no one wants to be stuck paying for someone else's repair bill.
Third-party property with fire and theft policies are also a good, cheaper alternative to comprehensive. They cover your vehicle for a couple of calamities, allowing you to put aside some cash in a self-insurance savings account. By self-insuring, you don't have to deal with an insurance company when something goes wrong, but you do have to resist the urge to dip into the fund.
Ultimately, it comes down to how much it would hurt to go without your car if you ever wrote it off. If you live in the city you might be able to get by on public transport. People in the country have fewer options. Comprehensive policies offer a couple of weeks' worth of car hire if you write your vehicle off in an accident where you're at fault, meaning you're not stuck hitchhiking to work until the claim is processed.
What you'll get with comprehensive car insurance
Most comprehensive car insurance policies cover the same basic events, like:
The differences are in the details. For example, not every policy covers the contents of your car, and even if it does there might be restrictions. Commonly excluded items are electronics and cash. We've also seen a couple of policies that don't offer cover for stolen belongings.
Another thing to consider is roadside assistance – while car insurance doesn't cover you in the event of a breakdown, many insurers do have roadside assistance programs that you can buy into at a discount.
A third big point of difference is contaminated fuel: will your car be covered if it's damaged because you filled up at a petrol station that cut corners?
What's the difference between "market value" and "agreed value"?
For drivers with comprehensive or fire and theft policies, this is how much your insurer will pay if you write off your car. When you buy a policy you often get the option of insuring it for a specific amount (within a range set by the insurer) – this is an agreed value. If your car is a total loss (i.e. written off or stolen), the insurer will pay you this amount, less the excess. Alternatively, you can choose to insure the car for what its value is at the time of an accident – this is its market value.
- If your car is under finance, it can be smart to insure it for an agreed value at least equal to the amount remaining on the loan. That way, if you have a total loss you'll be able to square away the debt before looking for a new car.
- Selecting the market value option reduces your premium, but it gives you less certainty about the value of your payout in the event of a loss.
Car insurance tips and traps
Know your excess
- An excess is the amount you pay to make a claim. The higher your excess, the lower your premium.
- Increasing your excess can save you money but be wary of a really high excess – it won't be worth your while to make a smaller claim.
Look for 'no claims bonus' discounts
- Every insurer has a name for this: no claims discount, safe driver bonus, the list goes on. Essentially it's a discount for not making a claim. The amount of the discount varies depending on the insurer. A 'maximum' rating (which usually means no claims for five years) can save you up to 70%.
- Some insurers offer a lower no claims discount (NCD), but will also give you a discount on their roadside assistance product.
- You can often pay extra to protect your NCD, meaning if you do have an accident, it won't affect your rating. But if you have a protected no claim bonus, don't assume an 'at fault' claim won't have an impact on your premium. Some insurers increase your premium regardless. Even a 'no fault' claim such as hail damage can impact on your premium.
Get a discount for restricting drivers
- Some companies discount the premium if you restrict the use of your car to nominated drivers or those over a certain age.
- If you take this up you shouldn't let an excluded person drive – if they have an accident it's you who'll pay a high additional excess or you may not be covered at all.
Know your discounts
- Discounts may be available if you have other policies with the same company, have an approved engine immobiliser or alarm installed in your car, or take out insurance online. Long-term customers, pensioners, people aged 50 to 70 and young drivers who've completed a skilled driver's course may also receive discounts.
- Insurers don't automatically reward loyalty or make discounts available. You have to ask a company for discounts when shopping for a policy. You should shop around at least every one to two years to make sure you get the best deal. We've heard from members who got an online quote from their own insurer and found that it was cheaper than their renewal slip.
- Some insurers will give you a discount for insuring more than one vehicle, or if you insure your home through them. This can be a good way to shave some dollars off your premium, but don't let be the deciding factor in your purchase.
Buying a car?
- When shopping for a new car, especially if you're trying to decide between different models, it's worth checking out what the insurance would be on each. Some models attract a much higher premium, for example, because they're more likely to be stolen. This could add hundreds of dollars to your insurance bill each year. Even the colour of the car can affect your premium.
The lazy tax – not changing insurers means higher prices
A lot of people remain loyal to their current insurer, which is a contributing factor in renewal premiums being raised each year.
Insurers can and do increase premiums more for renewing customer than for new customers. This is essentially a "lazy tax" – the price we pay for the reluctance to switch.
Several insurers attribute the premium difference to the online discount, which is available to new customers but not to renewals sent to existing customers. Be careful of discounts that only last for your first policy year – they're just there to get you through the door, and you'll be stung with a steep increase in a year's time.
Always check your insurer and at least three other insurers' quotes online before renewing your premium. Several insurers in our car insurance comparison said they'd match or beat competitors' quotes, usually as part of a campaign.
If you show more of a willingness to switch, then insurers will have to recognise this in their premiums or risk losing business to their competitors.