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.
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."
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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