5 essential questions to ask if a tornado damages your car

As residents of Oklahoma heal, assess and rebuild from the latest string of tornadoes and related flooding, questions naturally arise about claims and car insurance.

Here's a guide to help navigate through some of the toughest issues when it comes to your car and car insurance:

1.  How will I know if my car is a total loss?

This determination varies according to state law as well as your car insurance company's guidelines.

No matter what, you must have comprehensive insurance coverage for your car to be repaired or replaced after flood damage. You will owe your chosen deductible. Liability or collision coverage will not apply in cases where a car is flooded.

In general a car is determined to be a total loss when:
  • It's so severely damaged it cannot be safely repaired;
  • It costs more than the worth of the vehicle to repair it; or
  • The amount of damage or cost of repairing the vehicle is too much, according to state regulations or the insurer's guidelines for total loss.

If you made a comprehensive auto insurance claim for a car that was in a flood, it would certainly be totaled out by your car insurance company if mechanics say it's not repairable due to the extensive damage it received, or if the cost of repairing it is the same or more as the actual cash value (ACV) of the vehicle.

2.  What if my car is determined salvageable?

If instead a mechanic says the car is repairable, and the costs are under 50 percent of the vehicle's ACV, then it will likely not be totaled out and instead fixed.

Once the damage to the vehicle reaches 50 percent or more, then it's up to the insurance company (abiding by state regulations) to determine if it will be totaled or not, based on the adjuster's assessment of the vehicle.

A flood-damaged car can be tricky for insurance adjusters, and mechanics, to determine the extent of the damages it received. Damage may first appear to be minimal, but once repairs are started it may end up being declared a total loss due to extensive electrical damage, mold or other issues that are uncovered.

Unless your state has spelled out specific rules for totaling out a flooded car, which most don't, it's left up to the guidelines of your car insurance company. You can ask your insurer if the car was submerged to a certain degree underwater if they would automatically total it out or not. You can also ask what will happen if your car is repaired, but later rust or mold appears, what rights you have, under your policy, to make a supplemental claim for these issues.

In Oklahoma, the threshold for total loss is set by law and stands at 60 percent. (Here's a complete list of car flood insurance thresholds for total loss by state.)

3. Is all flood-related car insurance the same?

Here are the different types of insurance coverages that come into play if you're caught in a flood:

Comprehensive insurance: If your vehicle sustains water or flood damage, you can file a claim under your comprehensive insurance coverage, which covers any type of damage to your car up to its actual cash value that's caused by natural disasters instead of accidents, says Penny Gusner, Insure.com consumer analyst.

Collision coverage: Collision comes into play if you hydroplane and flip your car or hit another car or a tree. Your claim will pay to repair your car or will pay the actual cash value of the car. You do still have to pay the deductible, Gusner says, whether the accident was your fault, someone else's or caused by the storm.

Gap insurance: This type of insurance comes into play if your car is totaled and you owe more money on your car than it's worth -- gap insurance will pay the difference. "For instance, if you owe $15,000 on your car loan but your car is only worth $12,000, gap insurance will reimburse your lender for the extra $3,000." You can get gap insurance from your car insurance company or from your car financing company, but it's usually more expensive from your lender.

Rental car reimbursement: Depending on your situation, rental reimbursement coverage is a wise choice or a waste, says Gusner. If you have a second car or a way to get where you need to go without your car, you don't need rental coverage, she says. But if you'd be left stranded for weeks while your car is being repaired, it may pay to have it. "Rental reimbursement coverage is optional and pays you a certain amount of money per day or per week for a rental car to drive while your car is being repaired," says Gusner.

It depends upon what types of car insurance coverages you have as part of your policy if you'll be covered or not.

Comprehensive insurance covers severe weather damage For your vehicle's damages, you must have comprehensive coverage to make a claim.  Comprehensive insurance covers your vehicle for damages that are the result of severe weather or "acts of nature." 

This includes damage done by wind, hail, hurricanes and, yes, a tornado that picks up your vehicle, flips it and brings it back down mangled.

Comprehensive is a wise choice to have on a vehicle because it also covers your vehicle for theft, vandalism and striking an animal.

If you have comprehensive insurance on your vehicle, we recommend making a claim immediately. If there was a lot of destruction in your area, then you want to be at the front of the line for an insurance adjuster to start processing your claim. Your deductible will be due, even though you were not at fault.

If your car is severely damaged, then it's likely it will be declared a total loss. This means your car insurance company will not repair your vehicle but pay you its actual cash value -- the worth of the vehicle the second before it was damaged by a tornado.

If this is the case, we advise you to try to calculate the value of your vehicle so that you can negotiate properly with the insurance company.

4. What if I don't have comprehensive coverage?

If you don't have comprehensive coverage, then, unfortunately, you'll have to pay out-of-pocket to repair -- or replace -- your vehicle.

5. What if a tornado flipped my car or another car landed on mine -- am I covered?

Typically, in this case, comprehensive insurance would cover your car if damaged by another vehicle being blown and landing on your car. In this situation, since tornado winds are picking up a car and flipping it, it would be comprehensive -- the car that flipped became a flying missile and it was due to an "act of nature" that the accident occurred. If instead, say you were driving on a freeway and a person lost control somehow and flipped and landed on your vehicle, it would be collision (or you could go after the other party because the driver was negligent).

Insurer's terms vary so if your car is damaged by another car flipping and landing on it, in some cases your auto could be covered under collision instead.

(Photo credit: iStock; © BanksPhotos)

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