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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Nov 1, 2012 11:28AM
If you could dismantle, clean, and dry, all parts and put them back together and replace anything electronic that had power on when it was flooded, everything should be fine. Although, that actually works quite well for electronics and machines in general, like a wide screen TV or stereo system, there is no way that could be done for vehicles. Unless it's a classic car actually worth a total restoration and rebuild, it's toast.

Salt water is both electrically conductive and very corrosive to metals and other materials. It might take a while to see significant frame damage or electrical harness issues, so even if the damage seems superficial, a run through the car wash may wash off exterior salt and muck, but you can't clean the places were water has seeped in. I wouldn't trust a car that has been submerged at all for any length of time. It might just wear out much faster, but it could also have some serious safety issues that could happen anytime (loss of control, critical part failure, electrical fire, etc...).
Nov 1, 2012 11:10AM
I bet you that Mitt could sell you one of these
Nov 1, 2012 11:05AM
I'm a retired Certified Master Auto Technician with over 30 years GM dealer experience. After many years dealing with "FLOOD DAMAGE" vehicles here is the scoop: Insurance will cover the flood damage, they will declare the car "total loss" due  to the charges involved. Drain and flush the engine, drain and flush the fuel systems (tank out of car), replace the automatic transmission (cant flush an automatic tranny due to the water dissolving the glue on the clutches and bands), disassemble the complete interior and pressure wash all the  interior, replace all the insulation inside the car including the doors, clean and replace the window and lock mechanisms. Labor will reach 100 hours on some models. Plus parts. You can buy a new car for the price.  The real problem is the uninsured, under-insured car these are the ticking time bombs that will begin to appear in the used car marketplace worldwide, these are the ones with the brand new carpet on an older car.
Nov 1, 2012 10:32AM
These cars should be scrapped.  The insurance companies should be required to send paperwork to the motor vehicle departments stating that these cars absolutely cannot be re-titled.
Nov 1, 2012 10:17AM

Any kind of flood damages vechicles....And in many cases it shows up 2-4 years later.

What doesn't show up right away....Eventually rust or corrodes through brakes apparatus,brake lines.

Clamps screws and bolts,shocks or struts...Connectors and clamps on fuel lines and wiring..Along with wiring....Wheels and rims...Transmissions and drive trains can be nightmare.

Salt water can get back in body panels and rust metal ones from the inside..



Nov 1, 2012 9:31AM
Give me one of them! It can have any more problems than the junker I have to keep running. If it still runs, drop it off at my house.
Nov 1, 2012 9:27AM
Winter is not 2 far off; meaning the water will freeze, expand inside the engine, transmission. All of the fluids need to be flushed, along with the gas tank. Pour some Sta-bil in he tank.
Nov 1, 2012 9:11AM
Looting and rioting in Coney Island, even Fox News won't report this:

Nov 1, 2012 8:38AM
Hey if wanna watch some damn add, i'll click on it.....
Nov 1, 2012 8:31AM
Having been in the salvage auto rebuilding business before,  never buy a flood vehicle (waterdog) fresh or salt water, really no such thing as fresh water because all flood water is full of dirt-mud-sand, it just sounds better. You will have electrical problems as long as you own it, and newer vehicles are all computer controlled, a minor corroded electrical connection will stop the engine from running or transmission from operating. And many electrical componets are under the seats including air bag sensors and controllers, many flood cars have the air bag light on, Waterdogs have a market as usefull body componets, scrap the electrical and mechanical parts.
Nov 1, 2012 8:12AM
What the article failed to mention was the pollution the flood water contained. Analysis showed the water had sewage, bacteria, and petroleum. Even if the carpet was wet and the engine started, it would still require a hazmat team to decontaminate the interior.
Nov 1, 2012 7:55AM
They will be showing up as great deals, really clean, driven only by little old ladies on some shady grease monkeys lot. As always buyer beware, can't expect the governemnt to help you with this either.
Nov 1, 2012 7:49AM
Be especially leery in Florida - Florida is notorious for selling both new and used flood damaged vehicles. Been there - Seen it.
Nov 1, 2012 7:44AM

The vast majority of these vehicles will only be good for recycling.  But since I like to race, some of these cars may make cheap starting points to build race cars out of.  But that would still only repurpose a small percentage of them. 

Nov 1, 2012 1:26AM
In the pictures it looked clean, so I deposited 5000 for a holding fee.
Inspected the car with a certified technician  the whole engine block was rusted out, and there was green mold developing on the leather seats.
And apparently the car was submerged under 5 ft of seawater....
And the pictures were from another Audi R8 in their inventory that was LIGHTLY USED having exactly the same exterior and interior color.
They apparently used a fake serial number that checked out.
Nov 1, 2012 1:08AM
Nov 1, 2012 12:55AM
The flood cars usually go to Florida.
Nov 1, 2012 12:43AM
Way back when....I got my driver's license (1960)...my father bought a car that had been in a flood.  The only problem it had was that the transmission occasionally locked.  If I was driving I had to call him and he would come and fix it and we would both be on our way.  He would not show me how to fix it as "girls didn't do that sort of thing".  How times have changed!!!! 
Oct 31, 2012 11:41PM
Rrestoration from fresh water is much better, many less problems.  Salt water (the sme stuff your car is in from winter roadway salting will significantly damage most of the electrical components and connections.  These are an ok risk if the initial price is right and you have some mechanical/electrical skills.  If you are the average consumer, stay away!!!!
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