Rental Car Coverage: What Coverage Do You Need?

Renting a car? It seems that every week we take a phone call from a client asking us what they need to do when they rent a car. It can be a long conversation.  Here is an in-depth look at the insurance concerns for rental car coverage and what protection you need.

Signing the rental agreement = entering a contract!

Renting a vehicle is a business transaction and your obligation as the renter is guided by the terms you agree to by signing the rental agreement.  Keep in mind that you don’t have much of a choice, if you want the car you must sign the agreement.  The signing of the agreement is presented as part of the transaction, but don’t be fooled – this is a contract full of indemnifications, assumptions of risk and highly in favor of the party who drafted it in the first place.

Let’s start with the coverages in your personal automobile insurance policy that apply to a rented vehicle.  Disclaimer here:  we are assuming that you have a standard policy (ISO version) without any strange and unusual endorsements or exclusions.  You should note that not all policies are the same and there are many carriers who do not use the standard, ISO version of the policy.

How am I protected by my policy for accidents in the rental car?

Liability coverage for bodily injury and property damage protects you for allegations or claims that you have caused damage to another party.  Most rental agreements provide very limited liability coverage for the renter (you).  This is typically limited to the State minimum limits for liability in that jurisdiction.

Your liability limit from your personal automobile policy follows you around for most vehicles that you may drive or use, including a rental car.  It may not apply to a truck that you rent for business purposes of any type but that is a discussion for another day and article.  It is important to note that the liability coverage provided by your personal automobile policy only applies within the policy territory outline in the policy (the United States, its possessions, and Canada).

If you have a personal umbrella policy, the coverage will apply to a rental car.  If you rent a car outside of the policy territory on your automobile policy, a personal umbrella will usually provide first-dollar coverage less a retention limit as outlined in your policy.

What about damage to the rental car?

Most rental agreements require you to be responsible for damage to the vehicle you have rented.  You provide this physical damage to a car by buying comprehensive and collision coverage.  If you have Comprehensive and Collision coverage on at least one of the vehicles on your personal automobile policy, this coverage will apply to a rented car as well.  If you do not have physical damage coverage on your policy – you will not have this coverage for a rented car.

Be careful of the fine print!

It is important to note that there are some types of damage to a car that are not covered by either comprehensive or collision that you may still be responsible for under the rental car coverage agreement.  I’ll outline these types of losses:

  • Mechanical breakdown, wear and tear, war/riot/civil commotion, road damage to tires, car-sharing services, and delivery services (business use).  These types of damage are not typically covered by an automobile policy and therefore the coverage would not transfer to a rented car.
  • You are likely responsible for the rental company’s loss of revenue for the time period that they do not have the use of the vehicle because of the damage for which you are responsible.  We call this, Loss of Use and it is usually not covered by your personal automobile policy.
  • You are likely responsible under the rental agreement for the reduction in value of a vehicle that has been involved in an accident for which you are responsible.  This would apply even if the accident or damage is not legally your fault because this is responsibility that you are accepting under a contract not through common law.  We call this, Diminution of Value and it is usually not covered under your personal automobile insurance policy.

So, what do you do?

Based on this information, we suggest to our clients that, if they have adequate limits of liability on their personal automobile policy, they do not need to purchase any additional liability protection from the rental car company.

We have a much different recommendation regarding your responsibility to the car that you rent under the rental agreement.  Because your personal automobile policy provides Collision and Comprehensive but does not provide Loss of Use or Diminution of Value, we strongly recommend that you purchase coverage through the rental agreement for Physical Damage of the rental vehicle.

This is typically called the Collision Damage Waiver or the Damage Waiver.  This is not really insurance, but you are buying out your responsibility for the rental car from the rental car company.  Some of these provisions may contain a deductible or a limit that you are responsible to pay before the waiver kicks in.

They have your credit card!

Keep in mind that you probably give the rental car company a credit card for payment.  The final amount of the charge for the rental is open-ended since you may have to pay an additional amount due to the level of gasoline, tolls assessed to the car during your rental, the time you return the car or the mileage driven during the rental period.

Understand that damage to the vehicle for which you are responsible could result in a charge made against your card as well.  In short, they probably won’t ask your permission they will probably just charge you for your obligation to them under the rental agreement which could include the cost to repair the vehicle, the loss of use of the vehicle and the reduction in value of the vehicle because of the damage.

Do I have coverage under my credit card?

Speaking of credit cards, some credit card programs may include some coverage for rental car situations.  I have seen tremendous variations on these programs and each program has its own provisions, waivers, terms and conditions.  Please read the program carefully before depending on a credit card program to handle all the obligations you assume under a rental car agreement.

I’ve had some bad luck with rentals myself…

I have been fortunate to have done some traveling over the years.  We have rented cars throughout the United States and in several foreign countries.  We always purchase the Damage Waiver and have, unfortunately, needed to use it on several occasions.

Our most recent misadventure took place this year in New Zealand.  Someone (I’ll never tell), forgot to put the car in park when running into the grocery store.  They drive on the wrong side of the road there and the car is set up backwards too – driver on the right side of the car.  This makes some of the controls wrong handed.  Not fun to come out of the store to see your rental car in the middle of the parking lot having run into another car while you’ve been shopping for snacks!

It is a nice feeling to turn in the car at the rental counter and know that my responsibility under the rental car agreement has been satisfied.  For us, the cost of deductibles, time, and aggravation that we otherwise would have spent because of our rental car coverage mishaps have far outweighed the collective cost of the Damage Waivers that we have purchased.

Rental car coverage checklist:

  • Check your liability limits – you should have limits that you are comfortable with based on your net worth, social responsibility and ability to sleep at night.
  • Purchase an Umbrella Policy to give you higher limits of liability and give you worldwide protection for rental car situations.
  • Try and read your rental car agreement.
  • Review your credit card programs to see what if any protection they provide for rental car situations.
  • Consider purchasing the Damage Waiver next time you rent a car.