Overheard at dinner the other night. (No, I wasn’t eavesdropping. Their voices carried … I swear!)

Diner 1: The 2015 model just came out. Practically everything I complain about in my car has been fixed.

Diner 2: So trade in your car.

Diner 1: I can’t. It’s depreciated too much for a straight trade.

Diner 2: Kind of makes you hope for a car accident, right?

I think he was kidding. I hope he was kidding. Because, aside from the joke being in poor form, that’s just not how it works.

If your car’s totaled, most car insurance companies reimburse you for the actual cash value of your car, not the replacement cost. Let’s review the difference.

Actual cash value vs. replacement cost

Actual cash value (or ACV) is calculated by determining an item’s original value minus the amount it has depreciated after you bought it (more on this later). Replacement cost, on the other hand, is the amount of money necessary to replace damaged, destroyed, or stolen property with a new item.

We’ll use an example scenario* to help explain the difference. Imagine you buy a car for $25,000. You drive it without incident for 5 years when suddenly bam! A disoriented deer runs out into traffic and into your path. Don’t worry, you and the deer are okay. Unfortunately, your car is totaled.

You file a claim with your insurance company and are relieved to learn that deer run-ins fall under comprehensive coverage. That coverage, however, will pay for the car you have now, not the car you had 5 years ago. And after 5 years of standard wear and tear alone, your car’s probably worth around $9,000.

How actual cash value is determined

Of course, all cars lose value as they age, but not all cars age equally. If your car is totaled, the insurance company considers the condition the car was in just before the accident, including mileage, option packages, and overall physical condition (think peeling paint, torn seats, rust … anything that’s not a direct result of the accident).

In some cases, you may be reimbursed for things like title fees, registration fees, and sales tax. But this varies by situation and state, so it’s best to get the details from your insurer. Once your insurance company determines a settlement amount, they’ll subtract your deductible before paying out your claim. (That’s why it often pays to choose lower deductibles if you can afford to.)

But what if your car’s leased or financed? Sometimes what you owe on the lease is more than the car’s ACV. Good thing there’s a coverage for that!

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Loan/lease coverage

Let’s go back to your shiny, new $25,000 car. This time, rather than buying it outright, you decide to lease it. You put $1,000 down, leaving you with $24,000 to pay off.

Several months later, that same distracted deer (it must be mating season) dashes onto the highway and totals your car.

Your car insurance company will pay the actual cash value of your car, which has a new value after standard wear and tear depreciation of $20,000. That’s a nice chunk of change under normal circumstances, except, according to your last loan statement, you still owe $23,000 on your car! That leaves $3,000 — plus your $500 deductible — for you to cover out of pocket.

Loan/lease gap helps cover some of the difference between what you owe on your car and what your car insurance covers. It’s common for insurance companies to cover 90 percent of the difference. If you’re an Esurance policyholder and you purchase this coverage, it’ll pay up to 25 percent of the car’s ACV.** In the scenario above, 25 percent of $20,000 is $5,000 (but, of course, you’d receive only $3,000 since that’s what you owe).
Gap coverage doesn’t include expenses like unpaid finance charges or excess mileage charges, but it can help rescue you from dipping into that vacation fund to cover the rest of your lease.

If you’re considering adding this coverage to your car insurance policy, check your loan agreement first. Many finance companies automatically include it as part of your lease contract, which means you may already be covered.

And once you’re no longer “upside down” on your lease, meaning you no longer owe more than the car is worth, you can reconsider whether you need loan/lease gap coverage at all. If you’re unsure, just ask your insurer.

Coverage for your new (or older) car

Whew! With all that said, insurance can help you get back on the road quickly when the unexpected happens. Whether you’ve just bought a new car or are tooling around in a hand-me-down, make sure you’re covered for damage and liability with insurance you can count on.

Related links

For more confusing insurance terms made simple, check out the Esurance Glossary.

Read up on loan/lease gap insurance and physical damage coverage.

You can find out your car’s value by visiting Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds.com.

*The numbers used in the blog are estimates for illustrative purposes and not based on any one or aggregated incidents.

**Not available in all states.

Insurance 101 | Car insurance 101

about Jessica

During her time as senior copywriter at Esurance, Jessica wrote about everything from automotive trends to insurance tips to driving dogs (it’s a thing!). In her free time, you can find Jessica hiking with her dog (who cannot drive), devouring a good mystery, or very slowly learning Spanish.