Choosing a good shop is an important step toward obtaining quality service, but certainly not the only one. How you deal with your shop and, when you’re involved in accidents, with your insurer are equally important.

How to Deal with Your Insurer

If your insurance or another party’s insurance will pay for your repair (as is the case with more than 80 percent of all bodywork), make sure the insurance company doesn’t cut corners. Your shop can be an expert ally in this effort, but you yourself must make the right moves.

Always report an accident as soon as possible. If your car suffers only minor damage, and you are certain there are no structural or other safety-related problems, follow the instructions of the responsible insurance company. You probably will be asked to use a drive-in claims center that will provide an authorized repair-cost figure and the names of body shops willing to make the repairs for that amount. Using a drive-in service is convenient and should be satisfactory when there is only cosmetic damage.

Some insurers offer another option: Take your car to a company-designated shop and have the repairs made with no estimate. This can be a big timesaver for you and the company and, again, an acceptable arrangement if you need only minor repairs.

But if there is even a possibility of more serious damage, take your car directly to your body shop of choice and tell the insurer to send its estimator there. For serious repairs, you need the shop to advocate for quality. Don’t count on your insurance company to look out for your interests. Also, bringing your car to a body shop rather than an insurance company’s drive-in appraisal center allows the company’s adjuster to make a thorough inspection for hidden damage.

The disadvantage of taking your car to your own shop rather than to the insurance company’s drive-in center or its selected repair facility is that you might have to wait a few days for the company’s adjuster to get to your shop. In fact, some companies threaten delays as a way to force you to do what they want. But don’t accept a delay without protest; if a company representative can’t promise to send an adjuster out within a few days, appeal to higher levels in the company. If you are still dissatisfied, send an email or letter to the company demanding immediate service, and call your state’s insurance department.

If your car must be towed, a drive-in appraisal center is not really an option. Have it towed to the shop of your choice, and let the shop pay the towing charges, which they can include in the final repair bill. Also, find out how much the shop charges for storage, in case you eventually have to take the car elsewhere for service.

Regardless of where the appraisal is done, the insurer may offer less than your shop’s estimate and suggest shops that will make the repairs for its price. You then have three choices: Take your car to one of the insurer’s shops; leave the car at your shop and pay the difference out of your own pocket; or leave the car at your shop and dispute the insurance company’s offer.

If there is a dispute, it is very important to understand where your shop and the insurer differ. Ask the shop to explain exactly why its estimate is higher; the difference might represent work that doesn’t matter to you. For example, the shop may insist that certain required parts be new instead of used, as directed by the insurer. If safety is not at issue, the fight may not be worth the effort.

If you can’t live with the insurer’s estimate, and your claim is on your own policy, check the policy for an arbitration provision. Arbitration can be time-consuming (meaning you’ll probably have to pay repair costs yourself while arbitration proceeds), but it gives you a good chance to get a fair shake.

Finally, if your policy contains no arbitration clause, or you are claiming against another driver’s company, you can take your claim to court. For some problems, you can also get help by complaining to your state’s insurance department.

Working with Your Shop

Once you and your insurer agree on an estimate, authorize the shop to make repairs only up to the amount of the estimate. If the shop later discovers hidden damage, it can renegotiate with you and your insurer for a higher price.

Before you drive the car away from the shop, ask the shop for a guarantee. You are likely to get a minimum of 30 days’ guarantee against defects in parts, materials, and workmanship, and most high-quality shops offer guarantees of six months or longer; the length of some guarantees varies by type of job. Whatever guarantee you get, get it in writing.

When the shop tells you your car is ready, inspect it carefully—by eye and by touch. Examine most carefully the following:

Dent and Rust Removal

There’s more than one way to fix a dent. A good shop will remove a dent by leaving a nearly smooth surface and applying only a thin skin of plastic filler to completely even it out. Poor shops will fill in dents with a lot of plastic filler. Although the filler hardens and can be smoothed out to look like metal after being painted, the hardened plastic is brittle and may fall out or crack after another impact. Also, thick plastic patches tend to form webs of hairline cracks, which show through the paint after a few years.

Good shops also carefully remove all rust before patching rust spots. A little remaining rust will spread rapidly.

While it’s hard to tell how a shop did its dent and rust spot repairs, you will be able to tell whether the shop did careful work. Examine repaired areas closely by eye and hand. If you find uneven spots, tell the shop to do the work again.

Corrosion Protection

Welding, cutting, and grinding galvanized steel can remove its protective coating, leaving the area susceptible to corrosion; shops should re-treat these areas with a protective coating before painting. Depending on what work the shop needs to perform, it should apply an etch primer, epoxy primer, or weld-through primer before painting the area.

Although this is a job some shops try to skimp on, quality shops will do it the right way. The problem is that once your car is painted, you won’t be able to tell if the shop had correctly applied corrosion protection. One strategy is to make sure paintwork is covered by a manufacturer’s lifetime warranty. All major paint manufacturers provide lifetime product warranties; if a shop has failed to properly apply corrosion protection and the area begins to rust, the warranty will let you redo the work at a shop of your choice.

Painting

It’s easy to spot most paint problems. If paint is sprayed on too thickly, or if the mixture used is not right for the temperature of the spray booth, the paint may drip or sag or have an orange-peel-like texture. On the other hand, if paint is applied too thinly, it may not have enough gloss. If dust is not properly controlled, it will show up in the paint surface.

The toughest problem for painters is matching colors, with metallic and pearl colors especially difficult to match. While you can’t expect a perfect match on an old car, on newer cars it should be very close. Good painters mix paints using a manufacturer’s formula, then tinker with the color if it isn’t quite right. They also merge the new color with the original by spraying lightly over portions of old paint adjacent to newly painted panels.

If you are not satisfied with a paint job, insist that the shop do it again. But be aware that perfection may not be possible and that repainting is expensive and time-consuming.

Drivability

Take a test drive if the damage was substantial. The car should function as it did before the accident. Check especially that wheels are properly aligned—that the car doesn’t pull to one side of the road or the other.

Verify that every feature of the car works as it did before the repairs—door handles, trunk lid, hood, windows, even the sound system and windshield wipers—before leaving the shop.