Florida homeowners flooded by Ian don’t have to tell new buyers about the disaster’s damage

We’re one of 21 states that don’t require disclosure, no matter how many times a house floods

October 6, 2022 7:00 am

Motorists contending with standing water in North Port, Florida. Sept. 30, 2022, (Photo by Mitch Perry.}

Whenever a hurricane threatens to slam into someplace near me in Florida, there’s one thing I do before I start packing to evacuate: I call my mom in Pensacola.

She’s a retired bookkeeper, not a meteorologist. But she’s been carefully plotting the path of hurricanes across the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico for more than 60 years. In that time, she’s developed what Liam Neeson might call “a particular set of skills.”

She knows her way around the cone of uncertainty and can easily sort through spaghetti models (with or without Ragu). I tend to trust her predictions more than I do the ones from the Weather Channel.

So when Hurricane Ian seemed be drawing a bead on Tampa Bay last week, I called her up. She said, “This one feels like another Charley.”

She turned out to be 100 percent correct. Just like Hurricane Charley did 18 years ago, Ian blew ashore well south of Tampa Bay. It hit the island of Cayo Costa, just west of Ft. Myers, then tore through Lee County.

Watching video of Ian’s horrific winds and storm surge ripping through heavily developed, low-lying places like Fort Myers Beach, Matlacha, Cape Coral, Estero, Bonita Springs and Sanibel, I wondered how many of those homes had survived Charley back in 2004.

I wondered how many had filled up with water and then emptied out to become a magnet for mold. I wondered how many current residents had unknowingly bought one of those houses that had flooded in 2004, not realizing the same thing could – and would — happen to them.

Turns out, nobody knows.

That’s because Florida is one of 21 states that does not require home sellers to notify their buyers that the house has flooded before.

In other words, if your home flooded during Hurricane Ian last week, you could dry it out and sell it and never say a word to the buyer about what happened. It’s perfectly legal.

Even my storm-savvy mom was startled to hear about that. She said, and I quote, “What?!”

Here’s why that lack of disclosure is important:

“A home that flooded before is far more likely to flood again,” explained Rob Moore, director of the water and climate team at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that’s been sounding the alarm about this issue since it issued a report about it in 2017.

This is a growing concern as climate change has begun to push storm surges like the one from Ian further and further inland, particularly in areas where state and local government have approved development in flood-prone areas.

Between 1978 and 2017, more than 30,000 properties nationwide have flooded so often they’ve been designated “severe repetitive loss properties” under the National Flood Insurance Program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the NRDC’s report.

“On average,” the report noted, “these properties flooded five times every 2 to 3 years. Some of the most affected properties have flooded more than 30 times.”

A 2017 study found that in Florida’s 12 most populous counties, more than 15,000 properties met that description. Those properties were responsible for nearly 40,000 flood claims.

I asked FEMA how many of its repeatedly flooded homes were found in Lee County prior to Hurricane Ian making landfall there. The answer: 870.

That’s an awful lot of soggy real estate costing us taxpayers money, folks.

And bear in mind that the flooding from the storm wasn’t limited to Lee. There were floods in inland areas, all the way over on the east coast and down in the Keys. In one flood-prone Key Largo neighborhood, crocodiles (not alligators) were spotted swimming in the streets.

Yet, CBS News reported recently, as Florida’s population has skyrocketed over the past 30 years, “less than 1 in 5 of the state’s 10 million homes has flood insurance.” If people knew how often our houses wind up literally, and not just figuratively, underwater, they would change their ways.

Somebody in Florida tried to fix this obvious problem with the lack of flooding disclosure.

You don’t have to be my hurricane-predicting mom to predict how that worked out.

The Andrew angle

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew crashed across Miami-Dade County with winds so fierce they blew the measuring instruments off the National Hurricane Center. As a result, the experts took  a decade to figure out that it was a Category 5 storm.

The hustlers and scam artists moved a lot faster on working their Andrew angles.

T-shirts with the slogan “I Survived Andrew.” Credit: Craig Pittman.

Less than a day after Andrew’s passage, the first street vendors showed up selling T-shirts with the slogan “I Survived Andrew” (I know because I bought one). Soon there were scammers filing phony damage claims and crooked contractors collecting deposits and then disappearing without doing any work.

When then-Gov. Lawton Chiles toured the area on the one-year anniversary, one woman told him, “My contractor was on ‘America’s Most Wanted’ last night.”

But some of the biggest crooks were the banks and insurance companies squeezing Andrew’s victims for their last few pennies. Annette Taddeo saw that first-hand.

Then 25, Taddeo and her parents – recent migrants from Colombia – survived the storm but saw it nearly destroy their home with both wind and storm surge.

“It flooded up to their waist in water from the bay,” she said.

Taddeo bought an RV in Alabama and drove it down to park in her parents’ driveway. The family lived in the RV for six months while her parents fought with the banks and insurance company to rebuild their house, she told me. It was hardly a cushy existence.

“There was no place around there to rent, and no electricity for a really long time and no water,” she said. “And this was before cell phones.”

Banks kept selling and reselling their mortgage, she said, and meanwhile one of them decided to stop making payments on the insurance without telling her parents. They didn’t know until the policy was canceled.

As a result, Taddeo – now a Democratic state senator who’s running for Congress – says she has a keen interest in hurricanes, homeownership and insurance companies. In fact, she told me, the first bill she sponsored that passed the Legislature required sellers of hurricane insurance to disclose to buyers that their policies don’t cover flooding.

State Sen. Annette Taddeo. Credit: Florida Senate.

In 2020, Taddeo filed Senate Bill 1474, which would have fixed Florida’s glaring problem with homebuyers not being told they’re buying a previously flooded house. Here’s what it said:

“Before executing a contract for sale, a seller of real property shall disclose to a prospective purchaser…if the real property has ever suffered water damage or moisture-related damage that was caused by a natural flood event, if the property has ever had standing water in the front, rear, or side yards for more than 48 hours following a heavy rain (or) if any portion of the property is currently located in or near a Federal Emergency Management Agency-designated flood hazard zone.”

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

Another Democratic senator, Bobby Powell of Palm Beach County, proposed a similar bill that year, SB1842. Two bills should give the sponsors twice the chances of getting something passed, wouldn’t it?

Both bills were referred to the Banking and Insurance Committee. Both of them died. there. They didn’t even get a hearing from the committee.

Visual inspections only

I asked Taddeo what happened to SB 1474.

“The problem, as with everything in Florida, is that for certain powerful interests, this is something they’d rather not have to do,” Taddeo said.

Did I mention that the chairman of the committee that year was a Panhandle Republican named Doug Broxson, who works in the real estate and insurance business? He’s not a big fan of government regulations, as you might guess.

(The Senate president who picked Broxson to chair that committee was a Bradenton lawyer named Bill Galvano. His top priority in 2020 was shoving a trio of expensive, unnecessary and previously rejected toll roads down everyone’s throat to benefit campaign contributors.)

State Sen. Doug Broxson. Credit: Florida Senate.

I called up Sen. Broxson to ask him about the failure of Taddeo’s bill. He blamed her, saying she had failed to “work the bill,” by contacting the chair and the members to ask for a hearing.

“Bills that are worked by the members usually have a chance of being heard,” he said. He also pointed out that she had no House companion bill. Those bills seldom if ever get a hearing, he said.

Anyway, Broxson assured me, her bill wasn’t really necessary. A home inspection prior to closing on the sale would catch any flaws left by a flood, he said. Thus, there was no problem with unwitting buyers.

“I believe the marketplace has kind of taken care of it,” the senator said.

Curious if that could be true, I phoned the Home Inspector Association of South Florida, and wound up talking to Brendan Haggerty, their secretary, former president and a home inspector for the past 15 years. I caught him while he was trying to salvage a home he owns in Cape Coral which had been – you guessed it – flooded.

“Florida’s a non-disclosure state,” Haggerty told me, dismissing what Broxson had said. “Home inspectors are only required to do a visual inspection. So if there’s a hidden defect because of flooding or some other disaster, we don’t know that.”

Sellers do have to fill out a disclosure form, he said. When I asked Haggerty about that, the veteran inspector said, “Every realtor knows that the disclosure form is as valuable as the paper it’s printed on.”

A lot of sellers fudge their answers, fearing they’d scare buyers away by being too honest, he said. Seldom if ever do they get caught, and then any penalty depends on the homeowner’s willingness to sue.

After seeing what happened to her disclosure bill in 2020, Taddeo didn’t file it again. Why bang your head against a locked door?

Still, she said, “Florida needs it more than anybody, because we are the most flood-prone state in the country.”

F is for Florida

When I asked Taddeo what prompted her to file that flooding disclosure bill in 2020, she gave me a surprising answer: Texas did it.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey shocked a lot of  Houston residents by flooding 96,000 homes, including a gracious plenty that they had thought were safe. Turns out a lot of them had been flooded before, but nobody had told the buyers. (Sound familiar?)

Afterward, a lot of the houses that had flooded were suddenly for sale, cheap. And the word “waterlogged” was, as Gene Autry might put it, seldom heard as a discouraging word.

“People were getting stuck with these houses that everybody knew had flooded during Hurricane Harvey — everybody except the buyers,” said Moore of the NRDC.

In 2019, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that requires homeowners to disclose if their properties lie in a flood-prone area or have flooded before. Gov. Greg “I’d Rather Be Busing Migrants to Washington” Abbott signed it, even though it had nothing to do with restricting abortion.

I have to admit, hearing that Texas is more progressive than some other states, including our own, gave me a disorienting feeling. I nearly fell out of my chair when Moore told me that, when the NRDC graded the states on this issue, Texas got an A.

But not us.

“Florida? Oh, they’re right there at the bottom,” Moore said. “F for Florida.”

Heckuva job, Ronnie

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been doing a heckuva job dealing with Ian, just like George W. Bush’s FEMA boss, Michael “Brownie” Brown, did with Katrina.

DeSantis wore his own reelection campaign gear to view the disaster, instead of something with a state insignia, as previous governors have done. Then he complained on Sean Hannity’s TV show about other people politicizing the disaster.

He also donned a pair of pristine white work boots, which led to lots of jokes comparing him to Nancy Sinatra, Luke Skywalker and the Green M&M. (White rubber work boots are commonly worn by shrimpers and other blue-collar folks who want to keep their feet clean and dry, but rarely do they gleam as DeSantis’ pair did.)

His tour of flooding in Arcadia interrupted an ongoing relief operation there for several hours. Then he claimed that interruption had never happened because he was “the first one to show up in DeSoto (County) and help those people.”

More importantly, there were complaints about how he was so busy doing battle with woke math and critical race theory that he had failed to deal with our property insurance crisis. Florida homeowners were already facing the highest property insurance rates in the country. Thanks to Ian, they’re sure to go up even more.

I expect we will see the Legislature begin offering a lot of post-Ian bills soon, some of which may involve insurance. Given the lawmakers’ past performance, those bills are more likely to protect big-money developers and powerful utilities than help homebuyers.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see the governor redeem himself by proposing a bill like Taddeo’s? Something that offers better protection for Florida homebuyers, instead of targeting Venezuelan refugees or Orlando theme parks?

I’ve been watching the antics of Florida politicians from both parties since the 1970s. I’ve developed my own particular set of skills about predicting their behavior.

I would say that the chances of our own-the-libs-uber-alles governor doing the right thing on this issue falls squarely inside the cone of near impossibility.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.