What to do with Sandy's waterlogged cars?

Do you wait days for an insurance assessment or dry out the car and hope for the best? Storm damage may flood the used car market with musty vehicles.

By Jason Notte Oct 31, 2012 3:45PM

Amid countless photos of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy is a New York rush hour's worth of flooded vehicles.


To onlookers a screen away, those submerged cars and trucks were in the shot of perspective: A measure of how high the floodwaters rose and how much damage was left behind by a storm that has killed nearly 50 people to date. To those cars' owners, that's a primary means of conveyance wrecked, a commute lost and potentially thousands of dollars down the storm drain.

The insurance claims on those cars could eventually translate to big business for Ford (F), Toyota (TM), GM (GM), Honda (HMC) and other automakers with dealerships in affected areas and could bring a glut of water-worn cars to lots in other states, but right now those waterlogged vehicles present a huge quandary for their owners. Do you take photos of the damage, wait days for the insurance adjuster and make do with whatever transportation is available, as consumer advocates and insurance experts recommend? Or do you dry out the car and hope for the best?


"It's really overwhelming from a consumer's perspective," says Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence at auto sales and pricing site TrueCar. "The best advice is to just contact your insurance company and work with them to get a replacement because, in many of these cases, these vehicles are a complete loss."Image: Car Accident (Stockdisc/Corbis)


Even though today's tech-heavy cars don't fare as well as older models when the flood waters rise, there are things an owner can do to dry a car out and make it road worthy if it isn't heavily damaged. A spokesperson from auto research site CarGurus recommends calling insurance adjusters first and then clearing the vehicle of water and debris.  Do not start the engine, since this can cause greater damage if there is water trapped inside the engine or fuel tank.  Disconnect the battery, then determine how high the water rose by searching for water markers on the interior doors, walls and seats. Mechanics say dry seats and a dry air filter mean water likely didn't reach parts that could prevent a car for starting.


Popular Mechanics notes that mold and corrosion set in almost immediately and that even the tightly sealed engines of modern cars can let in water when they've soaked long enough. Checking and changing fluids, the fuel filter and wheel bearings is an absolute must if you're thinking about taking that car to work again.


Speaking of must, your car's interior is just a sponge for water and will take a lot of effort to clean. Good body shops can strip out soaked fabric and upholstery, but Toprak says lingering odor can haunt a flooded car for the rest of its life. Even if it leaves the shop smelling like a rose, there's a chance your flooded vehicle will still be marked for life. Many states require that repaired vehicles be registered as flood-damaged vehicles and slap what is known as a salvage tag on the vehicle's title.


"That diminishes the value of the vehicle by half, at least, if not more," Toprak says. "It's indellible, so it effects the value of the vehicle severely."


Unfortunately, owners whose vehicles aren't insured beyond base liability insurance aren't always so eager to part with half their car's value. Toprak says that some owners who restore their flooded vehicles will simply skip the inspection and tagging process and ship the car to other states where they can sneak through the requirements and sell the car as-is.


"We've seen this in with Hurricane Katrina and other flooding events in the past," Toprak says. "A lot of these vehicles end up in places where people wouldn't even think about flood-damaged cars, like in the West."


If you're on the other side of the equation and find yourself on a used car lot any time in the next few weeks, flood damage makes your job a bit tougher. Title checks and vehicle history services like CarFax can help, but only if damage has been reported. A buyer's best bet is to get the vehicle checked by a mechanic. If there are points of rusting, electrical problems, water marks in the instrument panels or any parts of the interior that appear warped, there's a chance the last place you saw that vehicle was in a Superstorm Sandy slideshow.


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142Comments
Oct 31, 2012 9:22PM
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Any car that has been submerged in water, salt water or fresh water, is essentially totaled.  There is simply no way to fully mitigate the damage to the engine, interior, and body, and all cars that have been underwater should be scrapped.
Oct 31, 2012 9:02PM
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Now that would be a new line of work for the creative, non destructive automobiles.. water proof technology and engines.. just how much would this product cost?

Never say never

Oct 31, 2012 8:53PM
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They will be shipped around the country and sold to unsuspecting customers by unscrupulous used car dealers.  So, this means there will be a job for Mitt after the election.
Oct 31, 2012 8:11PM
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50 people killed? You mean in the USA, right? There were 65 people killed in the Caribbean before the hurricane struck the American coast. Don't they count?
Oct 31, 2012 7:51PM
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Once they are inundated,  especially with salt water,  they are basically a never-ending problem.
Oct 31, 2012 6:55PM
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Always check under the carpet and the trunk mat for sand, if you find that just walk away.

Oct 31, 2012 6:39PM
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ok, folks. I'll bet the house that more than 25% of those cars find their way to a used car lot...you see, the insurance company will total it and pay the insurer whats its worth and then the slime comes out of the woodwork buying these cars for less than nothing from the insurance companys..what the heck, some money back is better than no money back. there should be a law if a car is totaled. It goes to the scrap yard, yea right. 
Oct 31, 2012 6:09PM
Oct 31, 2012 5:10PM
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Cash For Clunkers 2.0?? Obama should be rejoiced 
Oct 31, 2012 4:46PM
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Here comes the next round of water cars being resold across the country...
Oct 31, 2012 4:37PM
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There goes America wasteful goods! That's all we know how to do here!
Oct 31, 2012 4:12PM
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If these were freshwater flood damaged vehicles there was a chance, but salt water ruins everything it touches. Electrical problems will be a nightmare, brake components will stick, and the interoir will stink for life.

Parts for the recycler is the best option.

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