Responsible car owners need auto insurance. But not all policies are alike, and a little investigation can pay off handsomely. Start by making a list of the features that appeal to you. Then see which company can offer the policy you want at a price that works for you.

All is forgiven
Filing your first claim from an at-fault accident no longer guarantees that your rate will go up. Some insurers offer an "accident forgiveness" benefit, for which they'll go easy on your first such claim. Ask your insurer whether it offers such a service, and whether you qualify. Some insurers expect you to have been with them for a few years first; others offer it right away.

This kind of coverage can cost you a little more, but the peace of mind it offers may be worth it to you.

Good guys finish first
Doing the right thing doesn't always get rewarded in life, but it can where car insurance is concerned. If you're a good driver with a clean record, you'll pay less for car insurance than others. This can make a considerable difference. If you're a "high-risk" driver laden with tickets and/or accidents, you can expect to pay 10% to 15% more than a good driver on average. If your policy costs you $1,500, that's an extra $150 to $225 per year.

Having good financial habits can pay off, too. A high credit score can lead to lower insurance rates, among other things. If your score is among the lowest, you may be charged several thousand dollars more than a high-scorer. (This is a good reminder that even if you think your credit rating is high, it's worth getting a copy of your credit report just to make sure, so that you can correct any errors.)

Breakdown insurance
Some insurers (and even some credit unions and other financial firms) now cover repairs to your car. These policies offer benefits beyond your car's regular warranty; they can pay to fix just about every kind of mechanical problem, not just the drive train or major systems, and the policies apply to work done at a wide variety of shops, not just at a dealer. Older cars with more mileage may not qualify, though.

If this costly coverage seems like more than you can afford, consider another option: Just pretend to buy it. Put the cost of the premiums aside in a special account. Then, if you run into costly repairs, you'll have some money ready to pay for them. If not, you can keep the money -- perhaps to help pay for your next car.

Make and model matters
You probably know that certain cars will be more expensive to insure than others. High-priced cars with steep maintenance fees, or frequently stolen models, will doubtlessly command a premium. It pays to consider this when you're shopping for your next car.

It's also a good reason to shop around for the best insurance rate. Even given your particular make, model, and year, insurers can vary widely in the premiums they charge. A few extra phone calls or online quotes could save you several hundred dollars a year.

Payback for diminished value
Your insurer will repair your car after it has been in an accident, but let's face it -- it will never be the same. Some insurers will compensate you for that with a "diminished value reimbursement." It's only available in 14 states at this point, though, including Florida, Texas, and Virginia -- and only if you weren't at fault in the accident.

Close the gap
Finally, consider buying some "gap insurance" to protect yourself, in the event that what your insurer will pay for your totaled car won't be enough to pay what you owe on it. Imagine that you take out a car loan to buy a $30,000 vehicle. If it's totaled later, when it's only worth $20,000, and you still owe $25,000 on it, you'll still have to cough up $5,000 beyond what your insurer pays you -- in addition to the cost of a new car. That's where gap insurance can come in handy.

Insurance for cars is more multifaceted than you might think, so be sure to shop around. A recent study by Consumer Reports found that 14% of its subscribers would save money by switching insurers. Learn about all the options available, and decide what makes the most sense for you.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.