If you own vehicles long enough, it's a safe bet that one will be in an accident. Luckily for us, when the 4Runner was hit, no one was in it. This is the story of what happened, and the saga that followed.
So, it was the first Friday in December when @mrs.turbodb drove the 4Runner a few miles to a school where she volunteers as a tutor, around 10:00am. I'd gone to help a buddy with some landscaping at his place.
He and I were eating lunch when @mrs.turbodb called to let me know that a 17-year old girl had plowed into the 4Runner when it was parked outside the school.
She'd made a left hand turn, and was accelerating down the street when she decided that she just had to turn around and reach into the back seat to grab something. Doing so caused her to turn the wheel, and before she knew it, she'd drifted right and crashed into the driver rear corner of the 4Runner, pushing it into the car in front of it.
Luckily for us, the girl had called her mom - they apparently lived a block or so away - and they had the wherewithal to go into the school to ask if the 4Runner (and second vehicle) belonged to any of the staff. Not a fun call to get over the intercom, if you're @mrs.turbodb, who came out to find the 4Runner still entangled in the Suburban that had hit it.
After exchanging insurance info, and waiting for a tow truck to come untangle the vehicles, @mrs.turbodb headed home and set about finding shops where we could take the 4Runner for repair estimates. You see, we knew that because it was an old vehicle, that it wouldn't take much for it to be totaled - and we wanted to get all of our ducks in a row so we were just a bit more educated on what it would take to fix our family adventure-mobile.
Our first estimate was the next afternoon, and let me tell you - it wasn't pretty. I wasn't at the shop when they looked the truck over, but the estimate came back at a little over $7100, and the guy writing the estimate advised @mrs.turbodb to start looking for stock parts on Craigslist that we could swap in - for the nice aftermarket parts I'd installed, which we could sell for more than they'd pay - to the 4Runner when the insurance company totaled it.
Needless to say, I felt like $7100 was a little high for a rear quarter panel and trim, rear bumper, and a taillight assembly, and @mrs.turbodb had already arranged several other appointments for estimates, so I didn't worry all that much at this point.
Over the next several days as we got six more estimates that ranged from $2300 - $5300, I waited for Safeco - the other person's insurance - to contact me and let me know the next steps. Five days and several of my own calls later, I was still waiting.
Finally, Safeco got back to me and let me know that they were accepting 100% liability. "Well, that's good," I thought, and within five minutes, I'd emailed them to ask what the next steps were.
Two days later, I heard back. Unfortunately, by that time we were all out of town - we'd been planning a trip to Hawaii for over a year - and we weren't planning to return for 10 days, at which point @mrs.turbodb and I were heading to California and the Mojave Reserve to do a bit more exploring than we'd been able to during our trip along the Mojave Road the year before. I sent Safeco an email letting them know I'd get back to them in early January, and proceeded to have a great time in Hawaii and on our Mojave Redemption trip.
Our first day in the Mojave National Preserve was a bit... unusual.
I returned in January to find out that the Safeco agent was now out of town - without a stand-in - for another week. I wasn't thrilled about that, but I figured it was no big deal - we'd gotten the ball rolling in December and now it was just a matter of finding out where Safeco wanted me to get a couple quotes so we could start the negotiation.
I called every day after the agent was supposed to be back in the office, and three days later I was able finally able to get in touch. They gave me a list of Safeco-approved repair shops, and I made appointments at two of them - Service King and Gerber Collision - over the next several days.
Not the actual locations I would visit.
My first appointment was at Service King. When I arrived, the place seemed reasonably clean, the vehicles there were definitely nicer than ours, and the quote I got was right in the middle of the range of all the previous quotes at $4144. In fact, it was at the low end of the quotes that called for replacing the rear quarter panel - a $1200 part that would require cutting out and welding in a new panel - vs. the cheaper quotes which called for pulling out the dents as much as possible and then repairing the quarter panel.
The estimator at Service King let me know that the quote amount was likely right on the edge of what Safeco would deem a total loss, so they'd have to get approval before actually doing the work. That was fine with me, since I still needed to head over to Gerber for their estimate. I thanked the estimator and let him know I'd be in touch, and then waited five days for my final appointment.
My experience at Gerber was - to say the least - a bit different than the experience I had at Service King. Both @mrs.turbodb and I went to this appointment, and when we arrived, the receptionist asked us to wait in a couple of chairs for a few minutes until the estimator was free. The thing was, he was sitting right next to her - and we could see he was surfing the internet on his computer. Strange. After about 5 minutes, he was ready to see us, and asked that I pull the 4Runner into the shop. That was no problem - it was raining outside at the time - so I backed in and got out to show him the damage. Immediately he said, "Well, that's definitely totaled," to which I tried to explain that I didn't actually want the truck to be totaled - I wanted it to be fixed.
He was having none of that, letting me know that it didn't matter what I wanted - as he walked around the vehicle, snapping photos inside and out. This was a bit disconcerting, but I figured I might as well just get the estimate from him and then head over to Service King, so I bit my lip and followed him back into the office, where he told me, "It'll be about 10 minutes to write up the estimate." That was fine with me, so we waited.
After 10 minutes, he looked up from his computer and told us we should leave - he'd handle letting Safeco know that the 4Runner was totaled. Confused, I told him that I didn't want him communicating with Safeco at all - I was just here today to get a quote, and that I'd still like that quote so I could add it to the set of quotes I'd already gotten. "You're not getting a quote," he said.
Shocked, I asked why and got an answer that I don't even recall. But, I soon realized that he really wasn't going to give me a quote, and so I asked that they remove all of my personal information from their systems and not communicate anything to Safeco. "Not going to happen," was the response I got, "Once we enter your information in our system, we can't remove it." There wasn't much I could do at that point, so I left and texted Safeco with my experience.
The reaction I got from Safeco was pretty great at this point, I thought, and so I contacted Service King and setup an appointment for the first time they had available - 26 days later in February! Not ideal, but I figured that it was a good sign that they were busy, as it likely meant they did great work. It was 1:34pm, and I was happy - the 4Runner was going to get fixed!
You can imagine my surprise when I looked at my phone the next morning and saw a text that Safeco had sent just two hours later - at 3:47pm. Needless to say, my heart skipped a beat.
I immediately got on the phone - though now with a new total loss adjuster - and discovered that the decision to total the vehicle was based on an estimate from (you guessed it) Gerber Collision! I was also running into a wall in trying to reason with Safeco that they'd already approved the work at Service King - that apparently didn't matter because the review of the vehicle value happens in parallel with arranging to get it fixed (to speed things along, I suppose, though I was never explicitly told this).
It was during this call that my new adjuster also sent me Safeco's total loss settlement statement, the relevant page of which below, highlighting, mine. You'll note that they'd valued the vehicle at approximately $4000 for salvage, and would give me a little over $1400 if I wanted to keep the 4Runner. Oh, and they were insistent that it all be done in two days - which was going to be tough for me given that I was in the middle of prepping to leave on my next trip to Death Valley.
I took some time to look everything over, and then sent my new adjuster an email stating that I'd like them to reconsider totaling the vehicle, along with reasoning for why I thought that two of the estimates - one at Service King, and one at a local shop (Jim's Body Shop), should be viable to get the 4Runner fixed, as they were both below the ~$4000 salvage value of the vehicle.
Less than an hour later, I received an email from Safeco, and I was relieved to hear that they were once again OK with me getting the 4Runner fixed - though I'd need to do it at my local shop, and they wouldn't guarantee the work for the lifetime of the vehicle.
Thinking that things were looking up, I also sent a few other things to the Safeco adjuster that she'd requested I send in order to get the most value for the vehicle - the idea being that if the value was higher, that it might be OK to fix it at Service King, where they'd replace the rear quarter panel rather than fix it. I sent:
- 4 comparable (similar age, mileage, features) 4Runners that I found across Craigslist, eBay, and KSL showing sale values ranging between $5995 and $10,500
- All of the receipts for the aftermarket work and parts installed on the vehicle in the previous year, which totaled $6368. I knew that they'd pro-rate the value of these items, but I figured they were still worth including.
It wasn't long before the adjuster got back to me. Given the comparables and receipts I'd sent, they were willing to increase the value of the 4Runner by a ridiculously insignificant $300 - - an amount that wasn't enough to warrant fixing at Service King. Over the next few days, I questioned that $300 adjustment - were the $1000 tires and, not to mention the custom roof rack, sliders, and beefed up suspension really "worthless?" I never got any answers to my questions from Safeco - but ultimately didn't really worry about it because I figured was still getting the 4Runner fixed at Jim's Body Shop.
And with that, I left for my Death Valley Connections trip - figuring that I'd set up the appointment at Jim's upon my return. For a couple days, I had a splenditacular time in the California desert, and it was only as I was traveling over the heights of the Last Chance Range that I happened to get cell service for a few minutes. Long enough to download the emails, but not long enough for me to still have service when I noticed the following in my inbox:
Wait, what, again?! Especially interesting, given that I made no such request.
This got my blood pressure up a bit - again. This was the second time that Safeco had told me that I could get the 4Runner fixed and then later changed their mind and called it a total loss. And this time, it seemed as though they'd already notified the DMV that this was what was happening - without even consulting with me that I wanted to retain the vehicle if they totaled it!
Determined not to let it affect the rest of my trip, I put it out of my mind and had two more great days exploring the northern reaches of Death Valley National park. That park really is a special place, with an endless number of destinations to see and explore.
And so, as I found myself driving home on Super Bowl Sunday, I sent a quick email to Safeco letting them know - again - that I did not agree with their previous email, and I reiterated that I wanted to get the vehicle fixed at Jim's Body Shop, as they'd previously agreed just a week prior. The response I got was disheartening to say the least.
Not knowing what to do at this point, I decided that I needed to speak with someone who knew more about all this than I did, and who would be more likely to be on my side because they didn't have skin in the game - so I decided to call my own insurance carrier - Geico. I'd hesitated to do this previously since I knew doing so could cause my rates to go up - even though the vehicle was parked, and the incident was in no way my fault, but at this point I really had no other choice.
The person I talked to at Geico was great. Her first inclination was to just have me file a claim through Geico, get the 4Runner fixed that way, and then Geico would go after Safeco on my behalf, since Safeco had assumed 100% liability for the accident. However, because I don't carry collision coverage on the 4Runner, it turns out that this option wasn't available.
Side note about my insurance philosophy: I view insurance as something that should be used to offset the risk of catastrophic loss - loss that would cause significant financial hardship should it occur. As such, whenever possible, I self-insure. I choose my deductibles to be as high as possible, and I carry only the coverages that I couldn't bear the financial cost of myself. I do this because I know that insurance companies exist - in today's age - to make money. They are betting that their clients premiums will be more valuable than the amount they have to pay out in claims. Knowing that, I make the same bet - that if I keep and invest my premium, that it will be more valuable in the long run, assuming that any claims I have are not catastrophic. I recommend that everyone take this approach, though in doing so, it's important to be honest with yourself about what would be catastrophic financially - as it is a different amount for everyone.
Next, she offered to call Safeco on my behalf and try to get to the bottom of what was going on. With more knowledge in the industry, we both thought that was a reasonable idea, and she put me on hold while she spent a few minutes with the Safeco adjuster. Unfortunately, the Safeco adjuster was even less forthcoming with Geico - my agent remarking that the Safeco adjuster seemed "downright rude." Strike two.
The last option Geico gave me was to call the Washington State Insurance Commissioner. This it turns out is a consumer advocacy group that reviews cases like this where insurance companies jerk around consumers, to make sure that nothing untoward is going on. And, while it would likely mean a bunch more time and hoops to jump through, I realized that it was all my agent at Geico could do, and I thanked her profusely for her time - it'd been over an hour that she worked on this - that morning.
A last resort?
Before opening a case with the Washington State Insurance Commissioner, I decided to give Safeco one last call and see if I could work things out with them one final time. All I really wanted was to get the 4Runner fixed (at no cost to me) so we could continue to use it as our family adventure vehicle. The current situation - with an owner retained value of $1451.72 and my cheapest estimate from Jim's Body Shop being $2603 - definitely wasn't that.
Mentioning the Insurance Commissioner to Safeco definitely brought out an entirely different approach to the conversation from their side. I'm sure that's because getting the commissioner involved increases both the time and risk to Safeco, and in their business, time and risk are costly. And so, after being placed on hold a few times while she talked to her management, the Safeco adjuster eventually came back to the call and let me know that they could increase the amount of the payout to the cost of the repair at Jim's Body Shop, but in doing so they would still need to record the 4Runner as being totaled.
That wasn't ideal for me, but it was definitely better than having a totaled 4Runner and only half the money needed to fix it, so I agreed. It was only later - as I researched my next steps to getting the 4Runner re-titled and fixed, that I discovered a cool little provision in the Washington state vehicle code: a title only gets branded rebuilt/totaled if the vehicle is less than 20 years old at the time of the accident. So, while I still had to go to my local title office to get a new title, it's essentially identical to the previous one.
I've now got an appointment scheduled at Jim's Body Shop to get the 4Runner fixed and already, Jim's has impressed me - twice. The first time was when I went back just to verify that they thought the estimate was solid - since I'll be paying out of pocket, I didn't want to find out that it'd end up costing $5000 to fix the 4Runner when they got down to it. They very cheerfully took a look at the 4Runner again and validated their initial estimate - so that's good. Then, when I stopped in to actually schedule the work - I asked if they'd be OK with me supplying the replacement parts. By purchasing those myself, I could save a few hundred dollars over what they'd charged on the estimate, and they were totally cool with that.
So, at this point, my hope is that I'm getting what I wanted: We're keeping the 4Runner and not paying out-of-pocket for repairs. And, I guess I'm also happy that I'm done dealing with Safeco and their flip-flops. My hope - and we'll see if this pans out - is that Jim's will actually let me take a few photos as they do work to the truck. If they do, that'll be awesome, but regardless there's bound to be one more story to this saga!