Sara Routhier, Managing Editor and Outreach Director, has professional experience as an educator, SEO specialist, and content marketer. She has over five years of experience in the insurance industry. As a researcher, data nerd, writer, and editor she strives to curate educational, enlightening articles that provide you with the must-know facts and best-kept secrets within the overwhelming world o...

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Written by Sara Routhier
Director of Outreach

Joel Ohman is the CEO of a private equity-backed digital media company. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, author, angel investor, and serial entrepreneur who loves creating new things, whether books or businesses. He has also previously served as the founder and resident CFP® of a national insurance agency, Real Time Health Quotes. He also has an MBA from the University of South Florid...

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Reviewed by Joel Ohman
Founder, CFP®

UPDATED: Jun 3, 2022

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If your vehicle is covered by USAA car insurance and winds up a totaled car due to a collision or other covered incident, there are a number of steps you should take.

One of the most important things for the insured, as with most insurance issues, is documentation.

So as soon as you are safe and ready to start the process, begin by gathering all the information about the incident and your car that you can.

It will be especially important to have a benchmark of the condition of your car prior to the incident.

Step 1 – Deal With the Totaled Car

Immediately after the accident, inform your USAA representative about the accident and get the claims process started. If you have USAA total loss protection, this might be the time it comes in handy. 

If you were involved in a driving-related collision, chances are that there will be other issues to deal with such as filing police reports and attending to any related injuries.

It’s a good bet your car will be towed from the scene of any accident if it’s no longer drivable. 

If the damage is caused by some other incident such as a flood or severe weather (or even a tree falling on it in your driveway) a USAA claims specialist will either come directly to the scene to begin investigations and start the claims review process.

Or arrange to have a pre-approved tow or repair shop remove the vehicle to a site where this inspection can occur.

If your plan includes a rental reimbursement option with USAA, this will also be a good time to get USAA’s approval for a rental car and obtain that rental so you can go on about your business.

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Step 2 – Determine Repair/Restoration Costs

The entire basis for determining if your car is a total loss stems from determining how much it will cost to repair or restore it. With USAA a total loss payout will only occur after everything is said and done. It may not be the easiest to way for, but the USAA total loss calculation will be what begins the payout process.

If your car was towed from the scene of an accident, don’t be surprised if your USAA representatives have it towed to another facility.

USAA relies on pre-approved repair and appraisal shops to make determinations of how much repair and restoration work will cost.

It will be these estimates that start the process of a loss claim, and evaluating whether to label your car a total loss in the aftermath of an accident.

If you have a mechanic or repair shop you trust and rely on, you can have that shop offer an official estimate for what repairs will cost.

Fully repaired or restored is a loose term in many instances, but you should know that there are some states that have set minimum safety standards for how cars damaged in an accident should be repaired to be able to get back on the road.

With an official estimate for repairs in hand, you’ll quickly move along to the next phase.

Step 3 – Determination of a Total Loss

Most insurance companies deem a vehicle a “total loss” if repair costs exceed a certain percentage of the determination of the car’s cash or current market value.

For many companies, this can be as low as 51%.

There are also some states that set a minimum safety standard for cars returning to the roadways after an accident and an insurance company may also weigh the cost for restoring a damaged car to that standard against what the current market or Actual Cash Value of the insured car is.

Car insurance companies and claims officers will work to give you as little as possible for your totaled car.

That’s their job.

But with documentation of the value put into it and of comparable vehicles with similar specifications that were recently sold in your area, you can often negotiate a much higher value.

It is essential to have documentation to back up your claim, and to compare this to the sheet they use to determine value so you can make your case.

Step 4 – Determine the Value of the Totaled Car

Once you know how much the market says your car is worth, be ready to negotiate.

This is an essential part of your claim because it determines that value of the claim, as agreed upon by you and USAA.

This is also where it’s important to have read your USAA auto insurance policy carefully.

Look for something called an Appraisal Clause, and if you find one, follow those steps.

If in the process you have to pay out-of-pocket for the cost of a third-party appraiser, you can still wind up splitting the cost of a mediator with USAA to ultimately decide the fair value of your claim.

One important factor to remember: whatever you finally agree to as a settlement amount for your totaled car, the sum will be reduced by the total amount of any and all deductibles that apply.

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Step 5 – To Accept or Not to Accept

If your USAA car insurance representative informs you that they have declared your car totaled in the aftermath of a covered incident, you have a few options.

You can:

  • Accept or negotiate-and-accept the settlement value and receive a cash payment for your totaled car from USAA

  • You can re-purchase your totaled car from the salvage yard and accept a payoff from USAA that equals the actual cash value less the salvage value of the vehicle

  • You can accept the cash settlement and have USAA work with you to forward it toward the purchase of a replacement vehicle

If you want to accept the settlement, remove all your belongings from the vehicle and authorize the repair shop holding it to release it to USAA, which will then claim title to the car and issue you a check.

If you want the car, there are a number of steps necessary to obtain it, and more still to get it back to ready to drive. Don’t forget to ask about a salvage title, if applicable. USAA might offer a salvage title if the salvage value is manageable. Or you may be able to negotiate with USAA for a rebuilt title, if you plan on reworking your vehicle to get it up and running again. Otherwise, if your vehicle is a total loss, USAA will explain what you should do next.

Your USAA representative can assist you in each of those steps as well. They will advise you if there will be any impact to your future insurance premiums as well.

(Note: this article is intended solely for informational purposes only and is in no way to be regarded as a promotion or solicitation.

The author is in no way affiliated with USAA or any of its subsidiaries, nor is the author affiliated with any other insurance provider.)

Editorial Guidelines: We are a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about auto insurance. Our goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything auto insurance related. We update our site regularly, and all content is reviewed by auto insurance experts.