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Definition and Terms of a Total Car Loss

written by: •edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 5/26/2011

What is the definition of total car loss after an accident? The answer to this question depends upon whether you have replacement or actual cash value insurance coverage, GAP Insurance, and other factors. Jean Scheid, owner of an auto collision shop, offers some tips.

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    What Is a Considered a Total Loss?

    Tow Truck Wikimedia Commons Once you’re vehicle is in an accident, it’s usually towed to an auto collision center and upon contacting your insurance agent, the insurance company sends an adjuster to inspect the vehicle and obtain an estimate to repair the vehicle from the collision shop.

    If the costs of parts, labor, and rental expenses exceed the actual cash value of your vehicle, the insurance company typically totals the vehicle. Here, the definition of total car loss after an accident means that the insurance company will write you a check in an amount that is equal to the actual cash value of your vehicle at the time of the accident.

    Actual cash value is not the same as replacement cost coverage. Insurance companies determine actual cash values by utilizing valuations from sources like Kelly Blue Book. If you have total replacement coverage that means the insurance company will pay you what it would cost to totally replace your vehicle with a new vehicle.

    Image Credit: Tow Truck Wikimedia Commons

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    If You’re In an Accident: What to Do Next

    First off, it’s important to remember that if you are in an accident and a tow truck appears and suggests an auto collision center, you don’t have to choose their suggestion. Car owners have the right to choose their own collision center, so if you have a favored one, instruct the tow truck driver to take you to the collision center you prefer. Some insurance companies will require you to obtain more than one estimate, so make sure to ask your insurance agent about how to obtain more than one estimate, especially if the car is not drivable.

    If your car was in an accident with another vehicle, make sure you obtain the other driver’s insurance information and wait for the police to come to write an accident report as most insurance companies require this to pay your totaled car claim. If the other driver won’t stay, get a description of the car along with the license plate number and gather the names of any witnesses, if possible. Finally, keep a disposable camera in your glove box so you can take pictures of the accident including the nearest intersections.

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    Once Your Car Is at the Collision Center

    Wrecked Car in Durham Wikimedia Commons The next step in determining the definition of total car loss after an accident, will begin at the auto collision center. Once you are there, expect the following process, especially if you think your car may be totaled:

    • Estimate – The collision center will write an estimate on how much it will cost to repair your vehicle including parts, labor, and paint materials.
    • Adjuster – Your insurance company will send an adjuster to inspect the vehicle and review the collision center’s estimate.
    • Determination – The adjuster will compare the cost to repair your vehicle with an actual cash value from a source such as Kelley Blue Book. If the repairs and other expenses such as a rental car are more than the actual cash value, the adjuster will deem your vehicle totaled.

    Image Credit: Wrecked Car in Durham Wikimedia Commons

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    Reimbursement For Your Totaled Car

    Airbag After Car Crash Wikimedia Commons If your car is totaled, the insurance company will pay a towing service to transport the vehicle to a junkyard. Next, the insurance company will request a check made payable to you for the actual cash value of your vehicle, less your deductible, but plus what it would cost you to title and register and pay auto sales tax on a new or pre-owned vehicle you purchase to replace the totaled vehicle.

    Two scenarios come into play if you don’t have total replacement coverage:

    1. Upside Down – If the actual cash value of the totaled vehicle is say $10,000 but you owe $15,000 to the finance company, you are responsible to pay the $5,000 to the finance company or lender.
    2. GAP Insurance – If you have GAP insurance and you are upside down as far as what you owe on the vehicle, in our example above, the GAP Insurance Company will pay the extra $5,000.

    You may want to consider when you purchase any vehicle, whether it’s new or pre-owned, if you feel you want GAP Insurance or total replacement coverage. Full replacement coverage would mean, the insurance company would pay out what it would cost for you to get the exact same vehicle, even if the price is higher than what you paid originally. Total replacement insurance is more expensive and even if you have this type of coverage and you’re are upside down in what you owe, you may still be responsible for paying the finance company so your loan is paid in full.

    The definition of total car loss after an accident is made by your insurance company and the adjuster. If you want total protection, you can purchase total replacement value, however, the actual cash value the adjuster assigns to your totaled vehicles is usually non-negotiable.

    Image Credit: Air Bag After Car Crash Wikimedia Commons

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    Important Terms to Remember

    Thumbs Up Symbol by Damian Yerrick Wikimedia Commons When the adjuster is making the definition of total car loss after an accident, here are some important insurance and collision terms to keep you informed:

    • Accessory Adjustment – If your totaled vehicle has aftermarket or manufacturer accessories that were installed after you purchased the vehicle, unless you added the cost of those accessories to your insurance policy, you will not be reimbursed for them.
    • Replacement Coverage Rules – Check with your insurance carrier, however, with most, only new cars are eligible for this type of coverage, not used or pre-owned. Further, you may have a time limit from the time you purchased the new vehicle to contact your insurance company and request total replacement insurance.
    • Subrogation – If the accident you were in that totaled your car was the fault of another driver, while your insurance company may first settle with you, they will then begin a process called subrogation against the other driver’s insurance company based on the police report. If they are successful, depending upon the insurance company, you may be able to regain the your deductible.
    • Aftermarket Repairs – When you obtain an insurance policy for your car, ask the insurance agent if your car is NOT totaled, does the policy pay for the repair center to use factory or aftermarket parts. Many insurance companies only allow for aftermarket parts, which may not be what you want.
    • Totaled Car Expenses – Remember when the adjuster makes a determination on whether to total your car, expenses include all sorts of things such as rental car costs, sales taxes payable to the collision center or tow truck owner, parts, labor for both parts and painting, the cost of paint, bonding chemicals, primers, glass, and shop supplies. Shop supplies are items the collision center inserts into the estimate and include things like sand paper and other small supplies needed to repair your vehicle.

    Image Credit: Thumbs Up Signal Wikimedia Commons

How Insurance Works When You Have an Accident

In this series you learn what happens if you only have liability insurance and you get into a crash, the definition of total car loss after and accident and why you should buy auto GAP Insurance to protect yourself if your car is totaled.
  1. No Liability and a Crash? Find Out What Happens Next
  2. Definition and Terms of a Total Car Loss