5. Narrow the field.
Use the process of elimination to come up with three or four reputable insurance companies or agents to approach for quotes. Start at your state insurance commission's Web site, which usually lists several dozen of the area's top insurers. Choose the half dozen or so companies with the lowest prices for coverage that's closest to what you need. Next, check the reputations of insurers by going to the NAIC's Consumer Information Source Web site to find the "complaint ratios" for each. Complaint ratios show the number of complaints that consumers filed against a company in a given year and then compare this to the company's share of all premiums for a specific type of auto policy during that period. The national median is 1.0, and highly rated companies can score well below that.
Here's exactly how to see where your candidate companies stand. In the search box on the right side of the Consumer Information Source page, type in the name of the insurance company you want to research, your state and "Property/Casualty" for the statement type. From the results page, click on "Closed Complaints." To see complaint ratios for the company's auto insurance policies, choose "Closed Complaint Ratio Report" and "Private Passenger."
If a company's ratio is substantially higher than the median, go back to your state insurance commission's Web site to see if regulators have taken action against them. With that information, whittle your list down to the three or four insurers with the lowest complaints. Then contact them directly. Consumers who are really financially strapped — to the extent of not having Web access at home for this research — can ask a friend or relative with Internet access for help, or use free Internet service at a public library.