A flood is one of the worst things that can happen to a car. Floodwater can do all sorts of damage, and while some of the problems may be immediately evident, others can lurk in the shadows and cause problems months or even years down the road. Here are 10 things you can do if your car has been caught in a flood.
10 Things to Do if You have a Flood Damaged Car
1. Don’t try to start the car!
If your car looks OK — and the chances are that it will look just fine — it can be very tempting to turn the key and see if the engine will start. Do not give into the temptation! If any water has seeped into the engine, any attempt to start it can cause irreparable internal damage. Engines work by compressing fuel and air, but water is not compressible and trying to start an engine that has water in the cylinders can destroy it.
2. Determine how deeply the car was submerged.
Flood water, mud and other debris should have left an apparent waterline on the outside of the car (and possibly on the inside). If the water didn’t rise any higher than the bottom of the doors, and if there’s no water inside the car, chances are it will be okay; the underbody of the car is designed to get wet. (Even so, can never hurt to get the vehicle checked by a mechanic.) If the waterline shows water rising higher, or if water seeped into the interior, your car may have hidden (and extensive) damage. Note that most insurance companies will declare your car a total loss if water reaches the bottom of the dashboard.
3. File an insurance claim (quickly).
Flood damage is generally covered by comprehensive (fire and theft) coverage, so even if you don’t have full collision coverage, your flood-damaged car may be covered by your policy. Call your insurance company or visit its website to find out if you have comprehensive coverage. If your car is covered — or even if you only suspect that it may be covered — be sure to call and start the claim process as quickly as you can, as the insurance company is likely to be flooded (sorry) by calls.
4. Begin drying out the interior.
If the interior of the car was exposed to water, chances are mold is going to begin to grow very, very quickly. You can start the drying-out process by opening the doors and windows and putting towels on the floor to soak up water. Even so, the chances are that parts of the interior that got wet will have to be replaced. This may include carpets, door panels, floor mats, seat padding, and upholstery. Check the trunk, too; of water got in, you may have a real mess back there. Remember, if you have comprehensive insurance, these repairs may well be covered.
5. Make some preliminary engine checks.
If you are comfortable puttering around beneath the hood of your vehicle, you can make some preliminary engine checks — specifically of the oil and the air cleaner. Start by pulling the oil dipstick. If you see droplets of water on the dipstick or if the oil level is high, this may indicate the presence of water in the engine. (Water in the oil pan will settle to the bottom, lifting the level of oil so it indicates high on the dipstick.) Moisture in the air filter or its housing is another indication of possible water ingestion. Do not attempt to start the engine; have the car towed to a mechanic to have the engine checked and the water cleared out. (It may be possible to clear the engine by changing the oil, removing the spark plugs and cranking the engine to blow out any moisture, but we recommend leaving this to a repair shop.)
6. Check other fluids.
Floodwater in any of the car’s fluids is bad news. Check the coolant reservoir. Coolant in most cars is a grassy green but may be rust-colored in vehicles that have not had a radiator service in some time. Check brake fluid, power steering fluid, and clutch fluid for contamination such as moisture, debris, or high levels (fluids that are oil-based will float on top of any water in the reservoir). If there is no sign of floodwater ingress or submersion, the engine may be OK to start — but it’s always best to consult a mechanic, just to be on the safe side.
7. Try out all of the electrical bits.
If you or your mechanic are able to get the engine started, be sure to check out the electrical system. Try all of the car’s electrical accessories: headlights, turn signals, wipers, air conditioner, stereo, power seats and even the interior lights. If anything seems even slightly amiss — including the way the engine runs — water may have damaged the electrical system. Take the car to a mechanic. Remember that repairs may be covered by your comprehensive insurance, so it’s best to call your insurance carrier first.
8. Check carefully before moving the car.
If the car starts and runs, check carefully around the wheels, tires, and bodywork before attempting to move it. Look for debris lodged around the wheels, suspension, and underbody. Wear gloves to remove them or use a hose to spray the areas clean. Remember to put the car in park and set the parking brake firmly before crawling around underneath your car!
9. If in doubt, lean on your insurance company to total the car.
One of the biggest problems with a flood-damaged car is that problems may show up months or even years after the flooding event. If the damage is extensive, push your insurance company to declare it a total loss. The out-of-pocket costs may be higher than having your insurance pay for repairs to your flood-damaged vehicle, but you may save yourself some major headaches (and repair expenses) down the road.
10. Don’t replace your flood-damaged car with another flood-damaged car.
What happens to cars that are totaled due to flood damage? Ideally, the insurance companies should ensure the cars are scrapped so that they cannot wind up in the hands of an unwitting buyer — but many cars are simply cleaned up, repaired and re-sold. If the vehicle you are considering has a “salvage” or “flood damage” title, run away and don’t look back. That said, unscrupulous sellers can launder the title by registering the car in another state. Pay for a comprehensive history check (such as Carfax) to be sure that you’re not trading your flood-damaged vehicle for another one.