insurance

Car gap insurance: Is it right for you?

Car gap insurance is one of those expenses that seem like a waste of money until you need it.

In fact, unless you have suffered the total loss of a vehicle through either collision or theft, you may be unfamiliar with car gap insurance and how much it could ultimately save you.

The moment you drive a new vehicle off the dealer lot, your auto insurance is probably inadequate to protect you financially in the case of a total loss.

That's because your regular auto insurance is designed to pay the lender the vehicle's current cash value -- not the current loan balance. The difference can be thousands of dollars. And we all know once your new car -- owned or leased -- leaves the lot, it is considered a used car and the value of it drops significantly.

In fact, the average new vehicle loses 30 percent of its value the first year. By year three, that loss in value will be close to 50 percent, says Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com, an auto data provider.

If your vehicle cost $25,000 new, your insurer would probably pay about $18,000 for a total loss during the first year. That's a $7,000 shortfall. Depending on the amount of your down payment (or trade-in equity), you would still be responsible to your lender for the balance of the loan.

If you have car gap insurance, your insurer pays the difference, not you.

Who should buy it?

If you own your car outright or have a lot of equity in it, you don't need gap insurance.

Bill Pearse, vice president of auto product strategy and design for Travelers Insurance, says "Anybody who has an auto loan or lease and hasn't put a significant amount down should buy car gap insurance."

You're a likely candidate for gap insurance if you:

  • Lease a vehicle.
  • Finance for 60 months or more.
  • Put less than 20 percent down.
  • Roll negative equity from a previous vehicle loan into a new vehicle loan.
  • Drive more than the average 15,000 miles annually.
  • Purchase a vehicle with a history of high depreciation rates.

More than likely your insurance carrier offers auto gap insurance, and many carriers will allow you to add it at any time to cover the original loan.

Cost of car gap insurance

Pearse says Travelers calculates gap insurance premiums at roughly 5 percent to 6 percent of the premium for collision and comprehensive insurance you have on the car. On a $1,400 annual premium -- with $420 to $560 of that typically for collision and comprehensive -- gap insurance would cost $20 to $30. And the cost goes down along with the cost of collision and comprehensive as the vehicle ages.

Pearse says one of the biggest mistakes consumers make in buying car gap insurance is to buy it at the dealership where it costs more. "It's the belief that you can only purchase it from the vehicle manufacturer at the time of sale," he says. "The truth is that you can purchase it any time and insurance companies are less expensive."

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