Why is my North Carolina online insurance estimate lower than the body shop estimate?

Why is my North Carolina online insurance estimate lower than the body shop estimate?

There can be many reasons you might receive an online insurance estimate lower than the body shop estimate. One of the main reasons is the increase in the use of customer supplied digital pictures as the basis for the insurance adjuster’s claim amount. Your insurance company may ask you to submit detailed damage photos of your vehicle.

As we wrote on our Estimates and Hidden Damage page, there will almost always be a difference between the estimate and the actual cost to repair a vehicle. When the estimate is done through pictures instead of by an experience auto body collision technician, the amount of that difference can be significant.

In this article, we’ll explain some of the things that can help set your expectations about online insurance estimates:

Accident scene pictures are different from claim photos showing detailed damage

Stock photo of a white pickup truck in a ditch showing that an accident photo does not always show damage for insurance estimate purposes.

An accident photo does not always show damage for insurance estimate purposes.

It’s always a good idea to take pictures at an accident scene. These kinds of photos can help you answer questions that come up later. They’re not usually good enough for use in a collision repair estimate.

Claim photos are different. The purpose of these photos is to create a record of the post-accident condition of your car, truck, van, or SUV. They show detailed damage to your vehicle and, in many cases, are the main way an insurance company will decide how much to pay for repairs to your vehicle.

Important: Once a collision repair shop has started fixing your vehicle, you won’t be able to get additional photos of the actual post-accident condition.

If your insurance company requires you to submit pictures as part of a claim, you should follow their requirements for taking photos of the actual damage to your vehicle. Insurance company requirements may be different from one another. Even if you’ve submitted digital claim pictures in the past or with another insurance company, be sure to work closely with your adjuster so you can fully understand what they need from you.

The rest of this article will help you better understand the limitations of photos that can lead you to receive an insurance estimate lower than the body shop estimate.

Photos don’t always show the visible damage clearly

One of the main causes of a difference between the estimate and the collision repair shop’s final bill is the quality if the photos you send to your agent. There are many factors that contribute to this:

  • Poor lighting
  • Only one angle showing the damaged area
  • Out of focus images
  • Vehicle cleanliness

While it might not sound like a big deal, but adjusters make decisions based on what you send (more on that in a bit).


A blue Mazda Miata convertible with accident with bad contrast to show how poor lighting can lead to an insurance estimate lower than body shop estimate.

A blue Mazda Miata convertible with accident with bad contrast to show how poor lighting can lead to an insurance estimate lower than body shop estimate.

If a photo is too bright, it can wash out. The adjuster will be unable to see important shadows that can signal additional damage. In the same way, if a photo is too dark, there might not be enough contrast for them to see the extent of the damage. Its important to make sure the pictures you take are well lit.


Many customers submit one picture of a damaged area. While this seems efficient, it can actually lead to a much lower estimate from the insurance company. For example, if you have a damaged fender and the photo only shows paint damage, that’s what the adjuster will write for. But if you also show a different angle and they can see that the inner fender cover is hanging loosely, they’ll be able to include that in their estimate.

Adjusters write estimates based on what they can see. If your photo doesn’t show it, they won’t include it in the estimate.


If you don’t provide clear photos, the adjuster will make their best guess about how significant the damage is. Most modern cell phones allow you to tap the screen and set the focus. This is one of the easiest corrections to make. By itself, it probably won’t make the digital estimate match the body shop estimate but it will help some.


It’s pretty clear that a vehicle damaged in a collision may not be very clean. In fact, cleaning a car after an accident is something that can be dangerous. Leaking fluids and sharp edges can be hazardous and you should avoid them as much as possible.

If your vehicle has these dangerous conditions, it may be a good idea to let your adjuster know that the car is both dirty and unsafe to clean so you can get a good picture of the damage. You can often request that an adjuster come to look at your vehicle instead of sending pictures.

If the vehicle is safe to clean, you may consider clearing off dirt, mud, or things that obscure paint, mechanical, and other kinds of damage. The more clearly the adjuster can see the damage, the smaller the gap will be between the insurance company estimate and the body shop estimate.

Not all damage is visible

As we share on our Estimates and Hidden Damage page, a lot of collision damage is hidden. That means the pictures your insurance company asks you to send are only showing part of the damage. This is especially true on modern cars because of all the safety features.

Even a small collision can lead to expensive repair bills.

If you take a picture showing a small crack in the front or rear bumper, the insurance adjuster will likely write their estimate for the bumper cover itself. That’s the non-structural body panel that covers the actual bumper itself – and all the other technology behind it. That includes different parking, braking, and adaptive cruise control sensors.

Without removing the bumper cover, there’s no way to take pictures that show damage to these parts and systems.

That means the insurance adjuster will likely write their estimate based on the bumper cover by itself. They’ll rely on the shop to write a supplemental claim for damage they find during the repair.

Hidden damage is one of the leading causes of an online insurance estimate lower than the body shop estimate. It’s a normal part of the process that surprises a lot of consumers.


As we just discussed, hidden damage includes damage to crash avoidance technology in modern cars. Replacement parts for these systems is only one part of the repair cost. In many cases, these parts require very precise placement as well as detailed calibration.

Did you know that a collision repair shop has to be careful about the thickness of the paint applied to bumper covers? If the paint and clearcoat are too thick, LIDAR and other electronic sensors may not properly detect other vehicles.

Insurance adjusters know about these calibration requirements and often include some amount of calibration time in their estimates.

A qualified auto body repair shop may want to follow the insurance company’s recommendation to repair things like mounting brackets (rather than replace them) but find that the calibration fails. This can lead to increased labor cost and a big difference between the insurance estimate and the body shop estimate.

The adjuster

There are a lot of pressures on an insurance adjuster. They don’t have a lot of time to chase “better” photos so they make decisions based on what you send. The quality and quantity of photos you provide can close the gap between the insurance company and body shop estimates.

It’s also important to know that the North Carolina Department of Insurance requirements to become an insurance adjuster does *not* require auto body collision repair experience.

That usually means the adjuster has been trained by an insurance company rather than spending hundreds of hours working on collision repair. Training is good. Experience usually leads to more accurate estimates. Both types of estimators will still have to adjust for hidden damage that is only visible during tear down. The difference is that an experienced estimator will be closer to the actual cost than someone who is using insurance company “average and customary” rules for your unique accident repair.

About Automotive Collision Specialists in Fuquay Varina, NC

Do you want your car repaired correctly? We do too. That’s why we stand behind all our work with a limited lifetime warranty. We need to be sure your vehicle is repaired correctly when it rolls out of our collision center.

If you’re trying to find a good auto body repair shop near you to help, please give us a call. We’ve been serving neighbors in and near the local Fuquay-Varina, NC community for more than 30 years.

We’re ASE and I-CAR certified and offer a limited lifetime warranty on all the work we do. Call us today at 919-552-0333 to see how we can help!

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