There are three main buckets of car insurance providers, and examining each of them may shed a great amount of light on the process as a whole.
Direct car insurance carriers. The name is pretty accurate; direct carriers primarily sell car insurance directly to consumers. They typically do not employ local agents. To purchase direct insurance you can contact the carrier directly, either online or over the phone. Direct carriers include Esurance, Geico, Progressive, Amica and other large providers.
Hybrid carriers provide both direct insurance policies, and local independent and regional agents offering the product. Independent agents who work with hybrid carriers write policies on behalf of multiple carriers. Hybrid carriers tend to offer multiple lines of insurance coverage, including auto, home, life and health. Travelers, Safeco, Hartford and MetLife are all examples of hybrid carriers.
Captive carriers primarily employ local agents to sell policies on their behalf. Unlike independent local agents, these agents only offer products from one carrier. Carriers who use this approach usually offer many lines of insurance including: auto, home, life, and health. Captive carriers include Allstate, State Farm and Farmers.
Hopefully this breakdown is helpful as you become even more familiar with your car insurance options. The differences between direct, hybrid and captive carriers are somewhat “inside” distinctions, but they do present customer service considerations. If you feel comfortable with the big brands and don’t feel you need a local representative to help you throughout your policy, the direct route might be the best path -- especially if you already know what you want. If you still have questions and are looking for a broker with deep knowledge of the all the options, seek out a hybrid carrier. And if you have a good idea of the company that you’d like to go with but still want a local agent to answer your questions, stick with a captive carrier.