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The real cost of an auto insurance claim

Think twice before filing an insurance claim over that fender-bender or other minor damage. It could cost you big time.

One $2,000 property damage claim is enough to hike your auto insurance rate at renewal by an average 41 percent, according to new data from InsuranceQuotes.com. A typical consumer would pay $1,250.50 per year, they say, instead of $814.99.

"That's pretty hefty," said Laura Adams, senior analyst at the site. Bodily injury claims tend to be even more expensive, raising rates by an average 45 percent. There's also some variation depending on the state you live in, based on varying insurance regulations. (See chart below for some of the priciest states.)

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Price jumps stem from insurers' perception of you as an increased risk. "Statistically, if you file a claim, you're more likely to file a second or third claim," said Adams. If one claim is expensive, a second is exorbitant, spiking rates by an average 93 percent. Increased rates typically stay in effect for two to three years, she said, provided you don't have any more accidents.

Not all claims trigger big price hikes. Comprehensive claims—which include damage to your car from vandalism, animals and natural disasters—generate a small increase of 2 percent on average. Often, that's because such incidents are out of the driver's control, said Adams. "If a tree falls on your car, yes, that's what your insurance is for," she said. "Those kinds of claims move the needle very, very little."

States least forgiving of an auto insurance claim

State Average Premium Post-claim increase Post-claim rate
Massachusetts $976.65 76.27% $1,721.55
California $749.79 75.37% $1,314.94
New Jersey $1,219.93 62.35% $1,980.52
North Carolina $611.48 51.65% $927.32
Minnesota $718.61 47.89% $1,062.78
SOURCE: InsuranceQuotes.com, using data from Quadrant Information Services and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

States most forgiving of an auto insurance claim

State Average Premium Post-claim increase Post-claim rate
Maryland $996.29 21.59% $1,211.36
Michigan $1,048.87 23.41% $1,294.39
Montana $658.42 24.56% $820.13
Oklahoma $737.02 24.61% $918.36
Mississippi $748.44 25.89% $942.21
SOURCE: InsuranceQuotes.com, using data from Quadrant Information Services and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

The lesson for drivers: Use insurance as intended, to cover significant losses only. "Think of your policy as something to pay a cost that you would not normally be able to pay out of pocket," said Michael Barry, a vice president with the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group.

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Raising your deductible is one strategy that can help reduce the chances of filing a small-ticket claim while also saving you money.

"Since the Recession, a lot of people have increased their deductible to $1,000 from $500 to save on their premiums," said Barry. "For a driver with a $1,000 deductible, it would have to be a significant accident to file a claim."

Even just increasing it from $200 to $500 can reduce premium costs by 15 to 30 percent, according to the insurance institute. "The flip side of that is, you're taking on more of the risk," Barry said. Don't raise the deductible to more than you can afford to pay in an emergency.

If you're unsure whether to take on the bills yourself, ask your insurer what the long-term consequences of filing could be, said Adams. It's also worth checking to see if your insurer has an "accident forgiveness" clause that could limit or negate the rate hike, and what the terms of that protection entail.

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Shop around when it's time for renewal. Accident or no, the typical consumer already overpays by $368 a year, according to a 2013 NerdWallet.com study. But don't expect to pull a fast one. Insurance claims are recorded in the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, aka CLUE, where other insurers can see them, said Barry. You won't be getting an accident-free rate, but you might still find a better deal than your current insurer is willing to offer.

- Chart by John W. Schoen