California Auto Insurance Review

California has some of the lowest minimums for auto insurance in the nation (only Florida requires less), but just because you can stay legal with less coverage doesn’t mean it’s a smart idea. Armed only with California’s minimums, you’re at high risk for having to pay out of pocket after an accident — either for someone else’s medical bills and damaged property if you’re at fault, or for your own if you’re hit by an uninsured driver (which roughly 1 in 6 California drivers are). According to the Insurance Information Institute, the Golden State is also number one in the country for car thefts, so comprehensive insurance, while not required, is generally a wise addition to your policy.

The 4 Best Auto Insurance Companies in California

California Minimum Liability

California requires only that you insure yourself against bodily injury and property damage liability, so it’s your choice whether to add coverage for yourself, your passengers, and your vehicle. The state’s liability minimums can be expressed in the shorthand 15/30/5 (the format we’ll use throughout this review), which means the following:

  • $15,000 bodily injury coverage per person
  • $30,000 bodily injury coverage per accident
  • $5,000 property damage coverage per accident

These amounts do offer some protection, but it’s not hard to imagine instances in which they wouldn’t cover your entire financial liability. For example, if you’re driving down Rodeo Drive and accidentally collide with a luxury car, those repairs could easily cost more than the $5,000 in property damage coverage that’s required. And if the other driver is injured, his or her medical bills could well exceed the minimum $15,000 for bodily injury coverage. In both situations, you’d be responsible for making up the difference yourself — that’s why it’s a good idea to buy as much insurance as you can afford.

Your premium cost depends largely on personal factors: your age, credit score, how much you drive, and the type of vehicle you’re insuring, among other things. But because different providers will charge the same individual more or less for the same coverage, the only way to nail down your cheapest rate is to compare tailored quotes. Still, there are many other important factors besides price, making our reviews of California’s top auto insurers a good place to begin your search.

California Auto Insurance Reviews

AAA (Auto Club Exchange Group)

AAA's Consumer Reports “Reader Score” of 94 was head and shoulders above the next-best (State Farm and Farmers scored 89). On top of that, both J.D. Power and CR readers gave AAA the highest possible ratings across the board for claims-handling. That’s something we haven’t seen anywhere else, and it deserves special consideration even if AAA doesn’t end up being the very cheapest quote you get. AAA also had an exceptionally low Justified Complaint ratio.

Still, AAA’s quotes came in consistently lower than the competition. AAA offers fewer discounts than the other insurers on this list, but the ones that are available are significant enough that they might end up saving you more money than a bunch of smaller ones elsewhere. And because it’s technically a “reciprocal inter-insurance exchange” rather than a single corporation, AAA customers (termed “subscribing members”) are also eligible for dividends — which averaged $182 per policyholder in 2018.

AAA is technically a federation of regional motor clubs across the United States, but it’s also one of California’s largest insurers thanks to a reciprocal inter-insurance exchange known as the Auto Club Exchange Group. The setup is similar to a co-op: you’re a “subscribing member” when you purchase insurance through the exchange, and thus are eligible to receive money back on your policy in the form of dividends, in addition to any discounts. It might sound a little confusing, but the bottom line is that there’s a good chance you’ll get a check at the end of the year. For 2018, the average amount was $182.

State Farm

State Farm is the provider of choice for 14.5 percent of California’s insured drivers — more than any other company — and they’re fairly satisfied according to both J.D. Power and Consumer Reports, which rated them just below AAA. However, we were a little concerned to see that among all the insurers we profiled, State Farm had the highest number of “justified complaints” leveled against it in 2016.

When it comes to pricing, State Farm was middle-of-the-pack, though the quotes we got for middle-aged drivers were competitive with AAA’s. State Farm does seem to offer more discounts for teen drivers than other companies, however, so it’s still worth getting a quote no matter your age. We liked the in-depth info on coverage types and options we found on State Farm’s website, and there’s no denying the company’s elite financial strength.

Allstate

Among California’s biggest insurers, Allstate is about average in financial strength, slightly below average in claims satisfaction, and one of the most expensive in its quotes, cheaper only than Farmers. It also had the second-highest Justified Complaint Ratio in 2016, behind only State Farm. We found its website to be slightly harder to navigate than others, too — while big on eye-catching graphics, it took us a little longer to zero in on relevant coverages and discounts.

Still, Allstate is a reputable name, and if you have a new car, it offers something none of the other companies on this list do: “gap” coverage designed to negate the effects of depreciation if it’s totaled in the first year or so. But even if you drive an old clunker, saving on car insurance is all about comparing individualized quotes. Since there’s always the chance Allstate will offer you a great rate, it’s smart to grab a quote from them.

Farmers

Farmers has the second-largest market share in California (12.1 percent), and a Consumer Reports overall score of 89 (above average, and tied with State Farm). However, J.D. Power respondents rated Farmers below average for claims satisfaction, and the company’s financial strength is a couple notches lower than the others on this list. It also sank in our comparison due to a fairly high number of justified complaints in 2016.

Perhaps the biggest drawback for Farmers though, at least in California, is its high premium prices. It was the most expensive provider on our list in 3 out of 4 driver profiles we ran (the exception being a middle-aged woman, for whom it was just a few bucks cheaper than Allstate). Still, it’s worth getting a quote from Farmers since every person’s insurance profile is different.

Tips for Buying Auto Insurance in California

California is #1 in the nation for auto thefts.

It’s not a great distinction, but California consistently leads the United States in vehicles stolen per year — by a long shot. Partly it’s a function of the state’s large size, but international shipping ports and a border with Mexico also make it easier for thieves to offload stolen cars before law enforcement finds them. Southern Californians should be especially wary, since more than half of all the state’s thefts occur in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties. You’re also at higher risk if you drive a Honda Civic or Accord, the top two models stolen in California in 2017.

While it’s a nightmare having your car stolen, it’s even worse if you don’t have comprehensive insurance, which reimburses you for non-accident claims such as theft. The additional premium isn’t cheap, but you can lessen the cost by selecting a high deductible (like $2,000). It’s no fun to pay, but it sure beats starting from scratch purchasing a replacement vehicle.

Last season’s increase in wildfires should not affect your car insurance premiums.

2017 saw the most destructive wildfire season in California’s history, and you may have wondered about the role that plays in setting auto insurance premiums. Thankfully, the answer is probably none. Although some customers have been told erroneously that an increased risk of fires helped drive up their premiums, California's highly regulated insurance market makes that very unlikely. Nancy Kincaid, press secretary for the California Department of Insurance, says "insurers have to use their losses and their projected losses to justify raising their rates,” and there just “hasn't been a catastrophic loss of cars from wildfires.”

While California unfortunately has some of the highest auto insurance rates in the country, over the last seven years, its rate of premium increase (18 percent) actually trails the nation’s as a whole (25 percent). The primary increase driver seems to be the inclusion of gadgets and computers in more and more new cars, which, while useful, are more expensive to repair.