Rosendale Warns Montanans to Watch out for Hurricane-Damaged Vehicles

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HELENA, Mont. – Insurance Commissioner Matt Rosendale is warning Montanans about the possibility that vehicles flooded or otherwise damaged in this year’s hurricanes could show up in Montana.

“Montana could be a target market for some bad actors specifically because we are so far away from the hurricane disaster areas and many people therefore aren’t on the lookout for flooded vehicles,” Rosendale said. “It’s important for Montanans to properly research used vehicles after major natural disasters, even when the disasters occurred on the other side of the country. Just because it’s cold and snowy now doesn’t mean people should let their guard down, because the time is right for flooded vehicles to start showing up in Montana.”

The devastating floods in Texas and Florida may very well have an impact for Montana consumers. Anyone looking to buy a vehicle in the weeks and months ahead should be on the lookout for hidden flood damage. It is critical for consumers to research the history of any used cars they consider purchasing, especially in the aftermath of large natural disasters.  According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), more than 422,000 insured vehicles damaged by Hurricane Harvey are being processed as total loss claims. In addition, more than 215,000 claims have been filed following damage to vehicles from Hurricane Irma in Florida.

Thousands of hurricane-damaged vehicles parked at Texas World Speedway. Larry Field Photography

Water damage to a vehicle is typically covered under an auto policy’s comprehensive insurance coverage. A high percentage of total loss insured vehicles will be disposed of via salvage auctions and branded as flood damaged or salvage according to the title laws of the state. A properly restored and titled vehicle can be a very economical option as long as consumers know what they are getting, as there is always a chance of problems down the road with corrosion or malfunctions in the electrical systems.

Unfortunately, many more vehicles may not be properly titled if the prior owners did not have coverage that covers flood damage and those vehicles are not part of the system. Many flooded vehicles that weren’t insured will be cleaned up and sold with no indication of any damage. Some unscrupulous buyers will also buy a branded vehicle, clean it up, and take it to another state where they will obtain a “clean” title and sell it with no warning that it has been flooded.

Because of the dangers associated with the operation of vehicles with undisclosed flood damage, once an insurance company declares a vehicle a total loss due to flood damage, it reports the vehicle as flooded to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS).  Therefore, it is vital that consumers remain on the lookout for evidence of flood damage in used cars offered for sale.

Rosendale’s office recommends Montanans take the following steps when considering the purchase of a used vehicle:

  • Check the vehicle history at or via Carfax
  • Ask the dealer or seller if the vehicle has been damaged before, ask to see the title and check for brands like “flood damaged” or “rebuilt salvage.”
  • Check the carpets and the seats for signs of moisture, especially the carpet in the trunk. If the carpets and upholstery is dry, does it look newer than the rest of the vehicle? Replacing seat covers and carpet may conceal water damage.
  • Look for signs of corrosion or rust, particularly on the door hinges, hood springs and in the door opening where the door meets the body.
  • Is there a moldy smell, or is the smell of cleaning products or air fresheners too pungent?
  • Check the oil and the air filter for signs of water.
  • Look at the headlights and tail lights; moisture can be trapped inside, making them appear foggy.
  • Check anyplace where debris might settle after the water drains, such as wheel wells, in the seating tracks, under the spare tire, etc.
  • Get a professional to inspect the car or ask to take the car to a mechanic for a thorough inspection.