As far as budget items go, car insurance is a significant cost for most Americans, and a shockingly steep one for some. Fortunately, there are some things that you can do to keep your car insurance rates cheap -- or at least cheaper than they otherwise might be.
First, though, just how costly is car insurance? Well, according to a 2015 report by the American Automobile Association, the average annual cost for a low-risk driver with an excellent driving record is about $1,115, up $92, or 9%, over last year's rate. That's $93 per month -- for a best-case-scenario driver. How bad does it get for higher-risk drivers, and/or those with less stellar driving records? Well, according to a study by CarInsurance.com, the average annual car insurance rate for one ZIP code in Detroit is $5,109 -- ironically, it's a ZIP code where the median annual household income is $29,000. In Brooklyn, one zip code sports an average of $3,877. Plenty of ZIP codes across America have average rates topping $2,000, and some states, such as California, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, and Montana, have average rates topping $1,500, per a study by Insure.com.
Below is a list of lots of ways that drivers in America achieve lower car insurance rates. See which of them you might adopt. Some, such as your age, are not too negotiable, but others are.
Be a good driver. A single accident can send your rates up significantly -- by as much as 41%, on average, for a $2,000 claim, per one report. Drivers with clean records get offered much better rates. This means avoiding not only accidents, but also speeding tickets, DWI offenses, and more. If you happen to have an incident on your driving record, know that it won't be there forever. Its effect will likely be reduced in your premiums and it might not make any difference at all after a few years.
Live in a safer neighborhood. As those ZIP code averages above reveal, where you live, drive, and park can make a big difference in your rates. You're probably not going to pack up and move just because of this, but if you're in the market for a new home, perhaps take a few minutes to check out rates in your possible new stomping grounds.
Maintain a good credit rating. In most states, insurers can, and typically do, consider your credit rating when determining what they'll charge you. According to the folks at Insurance.com, if your rating is only "fair," you can expect a rate that's 17% higher than what someone with an excellent rating will get, while a "poor" rating will send your rate up by an average of 67%! If your credit rating could use some improvement, know that you can improve it – by paying bills on time, paying down debt, and so on. Steep car insurance rates don't have to last forever.
Be not too young and not too old. Not surprisingly, teens, who are new drivers, face costly rates, as do many older drivers, whose reflexes have slowed down and who might have poor vision, as well. (I know. Not too much you can do about this one.)
Drive a car that's not costly to insure. All cars are not created equal in the eyes of insurance companies. Do a little Googling, and you'll find lists of the most costly and least costly vehicles to insure, and lists of the safest and least safe vehicles. Insurers favor safer cars and are likely to charge higher rates for cars that are associated with more claims and less-than-stellar drivers. Cars with a lot of safety features will be favored, while expensive cars will cost you more. According to Insure.com, among 2015 models, the least expensive cars to insure include the Jeep Wrangler Sport 4WD, the Honda CR-V LX 4WD, the Dodge Grand Caravan SE Plus, and the Honda Odyssey LX, each averaging less than $1,165. Among the most expensive to insure are the Nissan GT-R Nismo, the Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG Convertible, the Dodge SRT Viper, and the Porsche 911 Carrera S Cabriolet, with each averaging at least $3,200. Here's another tip: Reconsider any plans to fancify your car with a custom paint job, spoilers, custom wheels, or a pricey stereo system. If you don't inform your insurer about any such changes, you won't be covered for any additional value, but informing your insurer can also lead to higher rates.
Drive less. If you become a telecommuter and are driving much less now, let your insurer know, as your rate might drop. The fewer miles you drive, the less risk you present for an insurer.
Raise your deductible. Up it from $200 to $500 and you can save up to 30%. Raise it to $1,000, and you can save even more.
Keep your car longer. This is a no-brainer. If you tend to replace your car every few years, you're keeping your rates on the steep side. Older cars can be far less costly to insure, and after a certain point you might just drop your collision coverage entirely, saving even more.
Have family members with good records and non-fancy cars, too. If your spouse or a driving teen in the household has a poor driving record or a bad credit rating or an expensive sports car, you're likely to face higher car insurance rates, even if you're a great driver with a 10-year-old Toyota. (By the way, being married is likely to result in a lower car insurance rate, as married folks tend to be in fewer accidents.)
Shop around. Don't just stick with your same old insurer, even if you're receiving a "loyalty" discount. Spend an hour on the phone with a few competitors and compare apples to apples, specifying exactly what coverage you have and seeing what they would charge you. You might be surprised. Give special consideration to any insurer you already have a policy with, as multiple policies can yield discounts.
Your car insurance rates will rarely seem cheap, but there are steps you can take to get them a lot lower.
Longtime Fool specialist Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.