Wednesday November 28, 2012

MANCHESTER -- Thump!

I can still hear in my mind the unmistakable sound of my car coming into unwanted contact with an adjoining vehicle parked nearby to where I was pulling out of a parking space. Like a highlight reel -- make that a low-light one -- it keeps replaying in an endless loop when my thoughts drift back to the moment.

Except this wasn’t some major crash, or at least it sure didn’t seem like one at first. A mild little tap, almost more of a warning than the real deal. It was probably nothing, I told myself as I got out of my car to check, what, if anything, had happened.

And at first glance it seemed my hopes were confirmed. No big gashes, no distorted bumper. No broken anything. And then I saw it --the first piece of dangling sheet metal hanging at a sickening angle from the right rear quarter panel over the rear tire.

Then came shock number two -- a thoroughly busted rear tail lightlens. The lights themselves -- for the brakes and the turn signal -- were still fully functional, but the lens itself was now in multiple fragments on the ground. Two big pieces could be fitted back over it and scotch-taped together, to give some semblance of normality.

But it was shock number three that was the crusher. Just below the taillight and the bumper -- or what passes for a bumper on a 2009 Toyota Corolla -- was a big dent that looked for all the world like some frustrated basketball player had fired a ball at the spot, pushing the sheetmetal inwards. The worst part of that, I would find out later, was that this had thrown the alignment of the trunk off from the rest of the body of the car -- the trunk still closed and locked but needed to be straightened back into shape.

Meanwhile, the other vehicle -- a hulking Dodge Ram pick up truck? Not a scratch -- nothing at all -- where that vehicle’s big metal bumper had protected its right rear the way it was supposed to. What had been a reasonably pleasant and relaxing Sunday up to that point had just taken a very wrong turn. OK, so it could have been worse. No one was injured, first and foremost. The car was still driveable. The other guy’s vehicle was undamaged. And while that ugly dent was, well -- ugly, the dangling bit of sheet metal over the right rear tire could, it turned out, be fitted roughly back into position - with a little duct tape you’d hardly know the difference. And that taillight was taped back together. Probably only a couple of hundred bucks to get everything back to normal, I told myself. The insurance will cover it.

Then came shock number four -- the visit to the body shop the following Monday morning. Not everyone’s idea of a fun way to start the week. The folks who take my keys at Hand Motors in Manchester are uniformly pleasant, courteous and empathetic. I feel better already.

I drop off my dinged Corolla, and wait for the phone call later to come and pick it up after they’ve assessed the damage and we have a plan for fixing it. I call my insurance agent to report the incident so we can file a claim. I’m figuring this a couple of day’s inconvenience and a manageable bill that won’t result in any out-of-pocket expenditures.

And in the end, that’s more or less how it turned out, although it was closer to a couple of weeks and my numbers forecast was a little off; more appropriate, probably, for a time when Dwight Eisenhower was President.

Later that afternoon I did get that call from the body shop informing me that my car is eminently repairable and they can have it looking like new again. The estimated cost, including sales tax? $3,582.21.

You’ve got to be kidding, I tell them and myself.

Of course, since this blew right past the $500 deductible on my auto insurance policy, according to the estimate that arrived by fax and the office that afternoon, there were those all-important zeroes alongside the "customer pay" line. But still -- that little tap was a more than $3,500 bill?

So began one adventure into the world of collision repair which in the end had a happy finish, but opened a door to a world that in more than 45 years of driving cars, I had mercifully managed to avoid. As I took some time to absorb the numbers -- replacing the quarter panel ($714); light assembly ($120); labor (25 hours); paint labor (almost 13 hours), my insurance company sent one of their appraisers over to check it out as well. He came by the next afternoon, took some pictures with a digital camera, and within a day or two had filed his estimate -- slightly under $2,500. Less my $500 deductible, this would mean the insurance company would write me a check for $1,978.65, which promptly arrived in my mailbox by the end of the week.

That was nice, but riddle me this, I want to ask -- what happened to the other thousand bucks?

The answer to that lies to a degree in the discussions and pre-existing relationships that go on between insurance companies and auto body shops, it turns out. What happens when you show up, like I did, drop off your car and await further developments?

The first thing a body shop will do is make an assessment of the damage and develop an estimate of the repair bill, said Walter Miller of Hand Motors, one of their collision repair technicians. First comes a "tear down" of the vehicle. Often, there’s more damage found behind the sheetmetal that’s not readily apparent to the average motorist -- like me. There are a lot of clips, bolts, and other little parts that attach the sheet metal to the mainframe of the vehicle, and often the mainframe itself needs to be checked to make sure it is still in correct alignment. That requires a computerized scan to check out, he said.

"There’s no real difference in procedure if it’s a minor or major repair job," he said. "We have to tear it down pretty much until we get everything in the estimate."

Many body shops have pre-existing business relationships with insurance companies and are "direct repair" shops -- and most of the time the insurance agency will accept the body shop’s estimate. Other times, they’ll send out an appraiser for a second opinion -- usually, when the estimate reaches a certain amount, like mine did, said Andy Shaw, of Shaw Insurance Co., my auto insurance agent.

"If it’s a matter of a few thousand dollars the insurance company may just take the shop estimate," Shaw said. "At a higher point, insurance companies may want a second assessment."

But sometimes not all the damage is readily apparent, which leads to what are known as "supplements" within the business -- a body shop finds more damage once they have the car in the shop for repair. That will prompt more back-and forth between the body shop and the insurer, as they come to an agreement over a part can be repaired or needs to be completely replaced. If it is to be replaced, does it need a part made by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), or will any after-market replacement part suffice?

It all depends on how strongly a body shop feels a repair should be done, said Henry Falasco, the general manager of Hand Motors. "Insurance companies will have a certain prescribed way of how they want their vehicle’s repairs to be done," Falasco said. "If we follow that template, that becomes an agreed upon estimate. With every insurance company, it’s kind of different how the relationship works."

The aftermarket parts world is less expensive than the original equipment parts maker, but the quality levels can vary, he said.

"OEM parts are designed to fit the vehicle, so you save labor time on that, because you don’t have to spend time trying to make the part fit," he said.

Simply getting the parts is often the time consuming part of a repair, added Walter Miller. Experience will often determine whether something, such as a dent in the sheetmetal, can be repaired or needs replacement, he added.

Insurance companies and body shops have developed a fairly common set of standards on how much repairs should cost, and how much time it should take to repair or replace a damaged auto part. Sometimes it’s cheaper to simply replace a part rather than repair it. But gray areas can still emerge, Falasco said.

"You have to support your case and you have to be able to say why you think it’s going to take that long and what are the steps we have to do," he said. "You just try to come to some sort of agreement on what it will take to fix the car."

In the end, after driving around in a nice little 2008 Volkswagen Jetta for about a week, I got my car back, with bumper, sheet metal and taillight fixed, looking just like new -- matching paint and everything. The only things missing were a couple of decals I’d stuck on the back. And we had all come to an agreement on repairs, replacements and fixes that kept me from dipping into my pocket for a deductible payment.

What may now occur, said Andy Shaw, my insurance agent, was a little uptick in my future premiums. But again, it varies, he said.

"Violations and accidents do affect your rate and every insurance company has their own matrix on how they determine that rate," he said. Some companies have various rules; some will ‘forgive’ a first crash."

The bad news: If you become a repeat offender, you will end up paying for it, he said. If a tree falls on your car as a result of a storm, or if a deer runs out in front of you and a collision is unavoidable, that’s not an "at fault" situation, Shaw said.

"But if you’re behind the wheel and you smash the vehicle, unless you can blame it on the other driver, that’s considered ‘at fault’," he said.

Guess who pays then? Not the other guy.

The aftermath: Now when I back up, I go really slowly, and my head swivels as far as it can in all directions. Color me paranoid. The next car I get is definitely going to have one of those television screens that see around corners.