What every policyholder must know before choosing a body shop.

Insurance companies and body shops use the same software estimating systems to calculate repair times and parts costs to fix your vehicle. There are 3 industry standard estimating systems (Mitchell, CCC and Audatex) and depending on the insurance company they mandate the use of their chosen software provider. Often shops will have to have each of these systems in their bodyshop to serve the policy holders from the various insurance companies. The insurance companies influence the development of these software applications, as they are the electronic link between your repair estimate and your insurance claim. Tight integration between these components is critical to keep insurance processing costs and response times as low as possible.

Each of these estimating systems store vehicle information for all car makes and models as well as the labor times and parts needed to return your vehicle to its' "pre-accident" condition. The repair times and costs may vary slightly between the systems, but not enough that would be noticeable to the policy holder on their repair. By entering you VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) your vehicle configuration and each of the individual parts that make up the vehicle can be displayed along with the associated labor duration required to replace each part including paint labor durations if the part needs to be painted. Repair times such as fixing a dent are subjective and are typically 1-2 labor hours for the size of your fist. Additional paint hours may be included to "blend" the paint color into an adjacent panel so that the slight differences in color cannot be perceived, if done correctly.

The labor rates you are charged for the labor times is determined by the market rate and used by insurers and body shops when calculating repair costs for an estimate. For example, Phoenix Metro may be $48 while San Francisco could be $85.

Although estimates will vary somewhat due to different estimators' repair preferences and sometimes do to unnecessary work, every body shop essentially creates the same insurance estimate when presented the same damage.

Customer choice is your right, but that doesn't make it easy

You are free to choose a body shop when you have your vehicle repaired after an accident - even if you are filing a claim with your insurer - it is your right.

Since all collision repair shops use the same insurance estimating systems and share the same repair rates, choosing a quality collision shop that will repair your vehicle safely and communicate effectively can be a difficult task.

When there is no financial incentive for shops to be better, faster or cheaper and without a recommendation from your insurer or trusted dealer, or personal knowledge of the industry, customer choice quickly feels like customer responsibility.

How do you choose in a "sea of sameness?"

An online search for body shops in your area does not help to clear the ambiguity of the collision industry. When every shop does the same thing and charges the same amount - they can only say the same thing. Shiny websites, exotic car pictures and smiling models exist on the web but don't match reality when you arrive.

Although customer choice is great for those that know how to choose, for those that don't, a recommendation from your insurance company, trusted dealership or a friend with first-hand experience is probably your best approach.