Betterment is an adjustment to an auto repair estimate that insurance companies use to lower the reimbursement you get for your vehicle repairs. The basis is that your vehicle has been “bettered”, or experienced an increase in value, due to the replacement of an old or worn part with a new one. The math behind betterment calculations and their application is not always definite.
So, can you fight a betterment charge on your insurance estimate? Betterment charges can be negotiated and even removed if you can disprove the logic behind the calculation of a specific betterment scenario. Betterment that was not documented sufficiently, or for wear and tear that cannot be measured accurately is an opinion, and thus can be disputed.
As an auto damage adjuster, I have written thousands of claims for multiple insurance companies. The application of my company’s betterment policy is a daily operation for me. Let me guide you on how to determine if a betterment was applied fairly and how to reduce or have it removed from your estimate completely.
Betterment of a part or damage must be based on a measurement. This measurement must be supported with documentation and in some instances, photography.
When it comes to betterment, there are a few common arguments that can be used to take apart an adjuster’s methodology and reasoning for application of the betterment policy. The most common arguments are detailed below.
How was the betterment measured?
Did the adjuster use a tool that would show without a doubt that a specific quantity of wear and tear occurred?
Was the betterment measured accurately?
Can the measurement be replicated with the same result?
Was the betterment documented with solid proof such as photos?
Is there any proof in the file or estimate supporting this measurement? Are there photos of the part in question and it’s measurement?
Was the betterment based on the adjuster’s discretion or opinion?
If the adjuster’s betterment is based on discretion, such as when applying a betterment to a part that cannot be measured, how can the adjuster support their findings? This is an opinion that can vary and cannot be replicated.
Can the adjuster defend their position in front of a judge?
Many insurance companies set a standard for their auto damage staff that the adjuster has to be able to prove their estimate in court. Is there documentation in the estimate file? Did the adjuster take photos of the measurements? Are the measurements accurate or are they discretionary or opinion based? Any of these errors should have management waive or reduce a betterment.
Below is a list of parts for which betterment is commonly applied. I will explain how a betterment is typically measured on these components and any arguments you can use to negotiate or have the betterment removed.
How to Dispute Betterment on Tires.
Tires are the most commonly replaced part on an estimate where betterment is applied. When an adjuster adds a tire to your estimate because the one on your car was damaged, the adjuster will measure how much tread was remaining on the old tire. This is then compared to the tread depth of the new replacement tire which is usually 11/32 of an inch. The difference between the new tire and old tire measurement is converted into a percentage and then prorated against your deductible.
For instance, if your damaged tire was measured at 5/32″ and the new tire tread is 11/32″ then the adjuster will prorate 67% of the new tire price (for example $180), towards your $500 deductible. After the betterment of 67%, $120.60 (0.67 x $180) will be added to your deductible. Thus, your deductible will now be $620.60. Sounds unfair right? Well this can be disputed in a few different ways.
Adjusters are usually trained to measure a tire once in the most worn out area of the tread, which is commonly the outer groove. Alternatively, most state tire inspection procedures require that a tire has to be measured in 3 separate areas of the tread to get an accurate reading of tire wear. The least worn out area of a tire is usually the center groove and can have 2 to 3/32” or more tread than the outer grooves.
This discrepancy in measurement can be used to negotiate a better tread depth reading as most insurance policies do not specify how exactly a tire betterment should be taken, and yet the state has a mandated procedure for tread depth measurements. Ask to have the tire remeasured if it seems too low and dispute where the measurement was taken.
You can also ask the adjuster to support their measurement with proof, such as photos, which some insurance companies require that adjusters take. If there are no photos of this measurement, or a detailed description on how the measurement was taken, then ask the adjuster how they can prove it in court? Additionally, if there is a photo of the tread depth gauge, they are usually blurry or dark (since they are taken in a wheel well) and therefore are useless.
Most of the time adjusters are too busy dealing with new claims, as most insurance companies are understaffed. If you escalate this to a supervisor, they will probably waive the betterment. This lack of evidence, the errors on behalf of the company, and your time and intervention disputing the adjuster’s malfeasance should be enough for management to waive the betterment.
I have seen many managers and supervisors easily give in to a customer’s demand when these points are brought up. If they do not comply, check out this article on how to escalate your demand through management or the nuclear option mentioned later in this article.
Tip: To determine the original tread depth of your tire, go to tirerack.com and select the tire model your vehicle is equipped with, then look up the measurement in the specs section of the page.
How to dispute betterment on stolen tires.
If an insurance company cannot inspect your tires due to theft, then they will ask you for receipts of when you last purchased your tires. If you do not still have the receipt, they will ask from where you purchased the tires. They will compare the mileage on the receipt, if it is present, with the current mileage on your vehicle, and use a formula to determine the tire betterment based on the expected mileage warranty for that tire model.
This betterment methodology is unsubstantiated as without an inspection of your tires they cannot assume that a specific formula will accurately predict how well a tire wears. Depending on the your driving style, local climate, and vehicle, some tires can maintain excellent tread depth longer than expected.
The insurance company’s assumption on wear cannot then be proven in court. Ask the adjuster if they are ready to prove this betterment methodology in front of a judge. I would then ask the insurance company not to place any betterment on the tires as they do not have solid proof of wear.
How to Dispute Betterment on a Battery.
Batteries are often damaged in a car accident as they are installed in the front of a vehicle right inside the crash zone. They can crack, leak, or become cosmetically damaged necessitating replacement. Insurance companies place betterment on batteries as their argument is that a new battery adds more value to your car than the older damaged battery.
Betterment on batteries is most often quantified in time. Many batteries have a sticker placed on top which shows the battery’s construction date and length of warranty coverage. Based on this, an adjuster will prorate the the battery cost towards your deductible based on the insurance company’s formula.
Some insurance companies do not prorate batteries newer than one year whereas others prorate from the first month at a certain percentage. Some also have a maximum limit of 75% betterment regardless of age. Below is the most common formula used by insurance companies. (infographic)
Ask the adjuster to prove how they calculated the betterment. Was a date sticker present on the battery or did they make an assumption on it’s age? Are there clear legible photos of the warranty sticker and documentation in the estimate to support the company’s betterment? Without evidence of the battery’s age, the adjuster cannot support their position.
You can ask the adjuster to waive the betterment or escalate the matter to their supervisor and beyond. If the adjuster can support their basis for the proration of the battery, you can still argue the battery will last longer than it’s warranty as there is no way to predict this.
I have personally inspected many vehicles with functional batteries outside of their warranty period. The warranty period of the battery after all, is a contract between the consumer and the manufacturer and not intended to be a predictor of long term reliability. Some auto manufacturers place 3 year 36,000 mile warranties on their vehicles, but these cars can easily last 200,000 miles.
How to Dispute Betterment on an Engine.
Betterment policies for engines are typically prorated at 1% for every 1000 miles with a maximum betterment of 75%. If your vehicle has 42,000 miles on it and the engine was damaged beyond repair, the insurance company will prorate 42% of the engine cost towards your deductible. This can be a significant cost as most replacement engines start at $1000 and it is not uncommon for them to cost as much as $5000.
However, there is an exception to when some insurance companies will apply an engine betterment. Betterment is not typically applied when a recycled engine is used on your estimate. A recycled engine is one that is taken out of another vehicle. It is not rebuilt, but often warrantied by the recycler for at least 90 days.
Adjusters are also instructed to select engines that have the same amount of mileage or less than is on your car. Recycled engines are not always predictable in their long term durability as they have been removed from cars that have been in accidents themselves and have unknown driving history. The only benefit is the deductible waiver here.
Rebuilt engines are sourced when a recycled unit is not available. Rebuilt units are basically recycled engines that have been sent to a re-manufacturing facility. Here they are taken apart, cleaned, machined, and have internal components replaced so that the engine is like new. Rebuilt engines can have warranties anywhere from 1 to 3 years depending on which warranty level your adjuster decides to pay for on the estimate.
Sometimes, recycled and rebuilt engines are not available, so the last resort can be purchasing an engine from the dealership, if new engines are still available.
Insurance companies usually try to source the most “cost effective” (cheapest) components for an estimate, thereby selecting recycled engines first, followed by re-manufactured and then new, if available.
Ask the insurance adjuster if there is any documentation supporting that engine depreciation should be prorated at 1% for every 1000 miles. Point out that modern vehicles and engines can easily last up to 200,000 miles or more.
No insurance company that I have worked for has any solid policy supporting this calculation. It is likely a standard a group of managers in the auto damage department came up with decades ago to substantiate depreciation, and it stands largely undisputed as customers never question it’s validity.
These same arguments can be also used for betterment applied to engine parts such as the water pump, air filter, belts, and other items. Make sure to ask the adjuster for their reasoning behind these part replacements and if they are using recycled parts to avoid a betterment.
I have personally seen supervisors and managers overturn engine betterments of 60% and higher due to the attempts of determined customers. At the end of the day insurance company management will not be able to defend their stance in front of a judge without any documentation, so if you use the nuclear option mentioned later in this article, they will likely waive your betterment completely.
How to Dispute Betterment on a Transmission.
Betterment on a transmission is applied in the same way as that on an engine, 1% for every 1000 miles. As with modern engines, with proper care, today’s transmissions usually last the lifetime of the vehicle. This betterment can be argued by challenging the insurance company’s calculation for which they will have no supporting documents strong enough to defend them in court.
How to Dispute a Betterment on Suspension Parts.
Suspension components are another commonly replaced part on insurance estimates. Whether a new tie rod, control arm, or wheel bearing is needed, the insurance company will apply a betterment to these parts. Most insurance companies apply betterment here at a rate of 1% for every 1000 miles over 50,000 miles, with a maximum betterment of 75%.
So if your car has 62,000 miles on it, a betterment of 12% will apply. In reality, like modern car engines, suspension components can last the lifetime of the vehicle. These betterments are usually waived on recycled parts, but do you really want recycled suspension components? Check out this article for more information on how to dispute recycled parts.
Do you still think a betterment is fair at this point? If you have a reliable, yet high mileage vehicle your betterment could be significant if there are a lot of components being replaced. The argument is simple here. Question the insurance company on the logic behind their decision to use a 1% proration rate. Why do they believe they should start prorating after 50,000 miles? Chances are, they do not have a specific policy supporting this calculation that is reflective of actual market depreciation rates.
This is a question a judge would ask the insurance company if you brought this to small claims court. Ask your adjuster or supervisor if they are ready to defend this in front of a judge. Chances are they will just waive the betterment. Check out the nuclear option mentioned later in this article on how to leverage this tactic.
How to Dispute Betterment on Brake Components.
Betterment on brake components can depend on which parts are being replaced. Components such as brake pads or rotors can be measured and the difference in thickness between the old and new part can be prorated as a percentage of the part price towards your deductible. Most adjusters do not carry the necessary micrometers to take these measurements or are even able to measure the damaged components as it is still attached to the vehicle.
If the adjuster applies a betterment for your brakes without direct measurement, then they are making an assumption on the amount of wear. This can then be easily disputed, unless they documented and photographed the measurement.
Even if they were to measure the worn part, which data did they compare it to? Did they have the new part present to measure against? Did they go online and check the specifications of the new part? Is there supporting documentation for this? Without any of this evidence, you can easily have a betterment reduced or completely removed for any brake pads or rotors on your estimate.
Betterment on mechanical brake components such as brake calipers and wheel cylinders are based on the vehicle’s mileage. They are prorated just like suspension components which is 1% for every 1000 miles over 50,000 miles. The argument here against proration is the same as for suspension components.
The insurance company’s 1% betterment calculation is flawed as it does not reflect modern day vehicle longevity statistics. Without supporting documentation for these calculations, an auto insurance company will not be able to defend their position in court. The 1% betterment rate is merely an opinion that is not backed up by any real world market factors. Escalating this issue to a supervisor or using the nuclear option, which is mentioned later in this article, should get your betterment charge reduced or waived.
Disputing Betterment on Exhaust Components.
Exhaust systems commonly have a betterment applied as they can be prone to rust and can have internal components such as catalytic converters and oxyden sensors degrade over time. Betterment here is applied either based on mileage or on appearance.
Catalytic converters and oxygen sensors often have betterment applied based on mileage. These components are responsible for the reduction of vehicle emissions to meet EPA smog guidelines and can also be very expensive. Many replacement converters start at around $500, a betterment at this rate will be significant.
As I mentioned in the suspension category, a mileage based betterment can be disputed by challenging an insurance company’s proration calculation against real world statistics. With proper maintenance and driving habits, catalytic converters will last the lifetime of the vehicle. Additionally, the catalytic converter might have high mileage on it, but can function as new. So how can an insurance adjuster say that it is worn? Ask them to prove this point, with documentation and if they are ready to support this in court…they most likely will not be able to so.
Components such as the muffler and exhaust pipes have betterment applied based on the adjuster’s physical inspection of the part. The adjuster is trained to take what is basically an educated guess on the surface area and thickness of the rust and subsequently apply a percentage to this for betterment.
The question here is, how does the adjuster accurately measure the affected surface area and rust density? At what point do they consider rust to be more than just a patina rather than irreversible and damaging wear? This cannot be done accurately as this is basically an adjuster’s opinion.
Ten different adjusters can inspect the same part and can all come up with a different betterment if any at all. Using an opinion like this will not stand up in court either, but you do not even have to go that far. Merely bringing up these facts to the adjuster’s supervisor or manager should be enough to waive the betterment. If not, check out the last section of this article on using the nuclear option to have your betterment waived.
Disputing Betterment on an Alternator or an Air Conditioning Compressor.
Alternators and A/C Compressors are commonly replaced due to frontal collisions. Insurance companies can take a betterment based on a 1% proration rate for every 1000 miles over 50,000 miles.
The adjuster will most likely write for a recycled alternator on the estimate for your vehicle, which would avoid a betterment. As mentioned earlier, do you really want used parts on your car? Asking for a rebuilt or new alternator would ensure better longevity of the part rather than an alternator from a recycler, which has an unknown history.
As I mentioned in the suspension category, a mileage based betterment can be disputed by challenging an insurance company’s proration calculation against real world statistics. If you get resistance with the betterment waiver, check out the nuclear option mentioned at the end of this article to help increase your chances of having the charges removed.
Betterment for Prior Damage such as Paint Fading and Wear, Rust or Dings and Dents.
Betterment on paint and body work is often taken when an estimate is written on an older vehicle that has sustained weathering or fading to its paint job and damage or rust to its body work. Adjusters can measure this betterment in two ways.
- The adjuster will make a judgement call on how much of the paint is damaged and prorate this as a percentage towards your estimate. This method does not require any calculations and is merely the adjuster’s opinion. An opinion based betterment can easily be disputed in court as insurance companies must treat every customer equally through a specific formula or methodology. Make sure to ask the adjuster for this methodology in their reasoning and documentation. If they have none, then you can easily argue betterment with management or escalate it through the nuclear option mentioned at the end of this article.
- Another way to determine betterment on worn paint or old body damage is to write a prior damage estimate. This prior damage estimate is then prorated, based on the vehicle’s age according to a specific formula. Some insurance companies will apply a 100% betterment for prior damage for new vehicles and a 50% betterment for prior damage on vehicles 5 years or older.
The result of this proration is then subtracted from the damages in question which will result in a higher deductible or money being taken out of your payment if you are filing third-party.
Let’s use the example where the driver door on your 10 year old car has to be replaced. The paint was faded and weathered and the metal shell of the door had a little rust around the edges. All of the other panels on the vehicle are in similar condition.
The estimate to replace the door is $1200. The adjuster writes a $500 prior damage repair estimate taking into account the paint fading and rust. Since the vehicle is 10 years old, the prior damage estimate is prorated at 50% resulting in a $250 deduction from the $1200 repair. You then end up with $950 to repair $1200 worth of damage.
Finally, the door is replaced and it has a brand new paint job and no rust. But now the door does not match the drivers side fender or the left rear door. So you end up with a car that has mismatched panels and yet the adjuster wants to prorate the estimate stating that the car is now in better shape?
There are a few ways to dispute this type of betterment methodology.
- You can dispute that the prior damage estimate is too high.
- You can state that the appearance of the vehicle is now worse because the panels are mismatched . The difference between newly painted door being brighter than the adjacent panel actually devalues the vehicle as it had a uniform patina before the accident.
- You can argue that you were fine with the prior damage and did not ask to have it repaired (if avoidable). Did the adjuster review the betterment with you and give you any options?
- How can the adjuster prove that your car sustained an increase in its value equal to the betterment, especially after it was in an accident that depreciated its value? Is there a vehicle valuation supporting this?
If the adjuster cannot answer these questions reasonably or remove the betterment it is advisable to escalate this issue to management. I have seen many supervisors quickly fold and waive these charges once confronted. If you have resistance at this point, check out the nuclear option below.
The Nuclear Option.
Through the use of the betterment arguments listed above, I have seen these charges easily disputed and waived. Supervisors, managers, and directors can initially act resistant, but when you ask them for hard facts on the underlying logic behind their calculations, they almost always fold under pressure.
If you continue to get resistance, threaten to file suit against the insurance company in small claims court. You can do this by send a letter or email of intent to sue before actually filing suit.
Writing this letter will cost you just a few minutes of your time. You can send it to the adjuster’s supervisor, manager, director, and legal department. Filing suit with small claims court, where you do not need an attorney to represent you, can cost as little as $15, depending on your state. Hopefully, you do not need to go this far, just the threat of the small claims suit should be enough to have the betterment waived.
“Insurance companies only get away with betterment as it is not usually disputed by customers, however, those that have disputed the betterment policy, almost always win their case.”
Most insurance company’s legal departments are too overworked and understaffed defending high-dollar court cases, that they will just waive your betterment to avoid getting involved in a small claims court case. Even if they believe their betterment was applied legally, the most cost-effective choice is almost always the insurance company’s way out. It will be more cost-effective for the insurance company to remove your betterment charge when faced with the cost of using their legal team’s time and resources to defend their case.
One example of where a betterment was overruled was in the case of Great Texas County Mutual Insurance Co. v. Lewis. Here, the Texas Appeals Court ruled that the insurance company’s application of a $2031.72 betterment for the engine replacement on Lewis’s estimate was illegal.
Overall, do not let the insurance company push you around, they will only take advantage of you if you let them. Take control of your insurance claim, escalate your concerns, and be determined. Insurance companies only get away with betterment as it is not usually disputed by customers, however, those that have disputed the betterment policy, almost always win their case.
How can the adjuster know if there is prior damage to my vehicle from another accident?
Auto damage adjusters inspect thousands of vehicles each year. They have training that can identify old damage through the presence of corrosion, paint transfers and impact markings. Adjusters also have online resources that will reveal any prior accidents in the vehicle’s history, which can include old photos of prior damage.