Is a Flooded Car Totalled?

Staff Blog

Staff Blog | Aug 31, 2017

(Andrew Smith)

Feeling like we’re getting a lot bigger storms, recently? 

We are. Climate change is resulting in a growing number of floods, more powerful hurricanes, and other water-soaked natural disasters. 

As a result, we get plenty of questions about flooded cars. 

To make life a little easier for you, our drenched fans, we’ve put all of our answers to the most common flood damage questions together in one place. 

Here they are -- and here’s hoping the water level stays below your door sill, next time!

How do you know a car you're buying has flood damage?

Well, there's the obvious stuff, that's not a lot of fun: water-logged seats, sea-scented fabrics and dampness in every nook and cranny.

You may also see mineral deposits of discoloration on the seats, seatbelts or door panels. There might be droplets of moisture on the inside of the instrument cluster and warped or misshapen door panels, if they're made of fiberboard. None of those are good signs for the future health of your ride.

In the trunk or engine compartment, you might find debris such as mud, sticks or other debris. Something to keep in mind for those of you shopping for a used car in the coming months:  a heavy aroma of Lysol or other disinfectants is a tell-tale sign that someone's trying to manage-- and possibly cover up-- a festering mold or odor problem.

But most likely, if a professional is trying to pass off a flooded car on the used car market, he will have cleaned up all those things, and perhaps even replaced the seats and the carpet. And it will be very difficult for the average buyer -- or even the average mechanic -- to have any idea that the car was flooded.

So our best advice is to simply avoid used cars that have come from the flooded areas. Sure, you say. How do I do that? Well, the current title of the car provides no guarantee that the car is clean. Unfortunately, flooded and salvaged cars can be re-registered in other states with clean titles, and then sold without disclosing the damage. That's called title washing.

So you're best bet is to use a service such as Car Fax. They offer a free service that will check the zip code in which a car was last registered, and let you know if it was registered in one of the flooded areas. You need the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN to get a report.

And while not absolutely perfect, that's one good way you have to spot a potentially flooded car before you buy it.

Is a flooded car necessarily junk?

Pretty much, yes. There are some obvious problems, as you can imagine. If water gets access to one of the cylinders, either through the air intake or the exhaust system, that cylinder can fill with water. Then, when the engine is started, that cylinder will hydro-lock (water can't be compressed like air), and everything connected to the cylinder will break or bend.

But even if the water is pushed out safely before the car is started, that cylinder has already had water sitting in it for a week. And those cylinder walls and rings are probably already rusting. So that engine's going to burn oil like crazy and run unevenly.

Water can get into the transmission through the transmission fluid dipstick hole. And if that happens, you'll be lubricating the transmission with one part transmission fluid and two parts water, or something like that. So you might be in the unhappy situation of having to bid the transmission goodbye, too.

Inside the car, lots of manufacturers now put electronic components, like computers, under the seats or under the dashboard. So even if only a modest amount of water was sloshing around the floor of the car, you may need a new computer -- or several new computers, depending on your car -- which can cost $1,000 each. Or more.

And if the water gets a little higher up, it can wreak havoc on electronic seat controls, electric windows, ignition switches and airbags. And more and more cars have seat belt pre-tensioners now, which use pyrotechnic devices housed where the seatbelt attaches to the bottom of the door pillar. You could well be looking at replacing those items, too. 

And then there's the whole issue of mold. When a car is filled with water, and then closed up and baked in the sun for a week, you've got mold spore heaven. And that's not only a health hazard, it's nearly impossible to fix.

Here's our bottom line: if water got any further than the floor of the car, we'd consider it totalled. Take the insurance money, try not to think about it and move forward to your next -- and, we hope, drier -- car.

What if I already own a car that's been flooded?

You have our sincere condolences. If you're not insured, and not in a position to replace it, you can try to keep driving it. But not before you perform some crucial tasks. Here's our list:

First, you have to get the water out of it. You have to remove and either clean or replace the seats, carpet, the interior panels, and possibly even the headliner. Bleach has to be used to attempt to kill the mold spores. And the sooner, the better.

You have to remove all the spark plugs, and then turn the engine over, to purge any water that may have gotten into the cylinders. If water comes out, that cylinder is a candidate for corrosion and failure. You also have to drain the motor oil and transmission fluid, in case water has gotten in and diluted those crucial lubricants.

Then you can start the car and start looking for electronic gremlins. And hope the mold and the smell don't get too bad.

So basically, if a car is flooded, and it's your only transportation, you may be able to use it. But it's bound to cause you problems. Think about it. Insurance companies HATE to spend money. If they could fix a car and put it back on the road, they'd do it in a New York minute. And even THEY won't bother fixing flooded cars.

So, if you absolutely have to keep a car that's been flooded, consider it a short-term solution. And if you're shopping for a car, buyer beware.


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