Flooding is one of the most common disasters in the United States. When a catastrophic flood hits, the damage left in its wake can affect thousands of people. Those who have been fortunate enough to escape the flood and avoid any type of property damage still face many obstacles. One of these obstacles is making sure that their car is safe to drive. Flooded cars can be a danger to you, your family, and other drivers on the road.
Car and Driver found up to 1 million cars were destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which was more than any single event in American history. The massive hurricane caused a spike in car owners who attempted to salvage their vehicles, selling them for as little as a few hundred dollars.
When a car experiences water damage, it's crucial to get it repaired quickly. Certain problems can occur if you let your car sit in water for too long. Even if a car looks fine on the outside, there could be problems with its internal electronics—and these problems might not manifest themselves for months or even years.
Fortunately, some tell-tale signs can help you identify a flood-damaged car—if you know what to look for. Here are nine common problems found on flooded cars that can help you spot these damaged vehicles before it's too late:
1. WATER STAINS
The most visible sign of a flood-damaged car is water stains. Look for water stains on upholstery, door panels, headliners, and seatbelts. Sometimes these might be hard to spot if they're light-colored stains and if they're hidden behind other material such as carpet padding. The floor may also creak more than expected due to swelling of wood trim from moisture absorption.
2. MUD AND DEBRIS
If you're inspecting a car that might have been flooded, it Is easy to see if the carpets are wet or muddy. The water could be long gone, but debris in the carpet or on the dashboard indicates that water has been standing within the vehicle's interior. You might also find mud built up around small openings like the rear defroster vents.
3. DAMP CARPETING
Damp or soggy carpeting can mean that the car has been submerged in deep water for weeks or even months at a time. Even worse, it could mean that the vehicle was filled with sewage waste and bacteria-ridden water before it was drained out.
4. ENGINE DAMAGE
Suppose water has gotten into a car's engine. In that case, it can cause extensive damage to the cylinders and pistons within and other parts like the alternator, starter motor, radiator, and various sensors and relays. These vital components are usually not designed to get wet — especially saltwater — and can fail quickly in such conditions.
5. WIRING LOOM
The wiring loom, which is responsible for all electrical functions throughout the car, has been saturated with water and will likely be damaged beyond repair. It may be possible to replace individual wires and connections, but this is unlikely to solve all electrical faults caused by water ingress.
6. ELECTRICAL SYSTEM DAMAGE
The electrical system is one of the first to fail when a vehicle gets flooded. Even for those who have little knowledge about automotive work, the signs of a damaged electrical system are easy to spot. For example, if you need to jiggle the ignition key to start the car, there could be a problem with your electrical system. The same goes for flickering headlights and dashboard lights.
7. BAD TRANSMISSION
Floodwater can get into the transmission, transfer case, and differential, causing metals to pit and swell, seals to crack, and electrical components to corrode. Transmission rebuilding or replacement is usually necessary after a flood.
Rust is one of the most common problems found on flooded cars. While it may not be serious, rust can quickly spread through vehicles and cause more severe problems. This is common on older vehicles, but even newer flooded vehicles can develop rust. Rust can quickly spread through a vehicle, weakening its structure and causing other leaks and electrical problems.
9. DAMAGED EXHAUST SYSTEM
Your car's exhaust system takes in air, fuel, and other emissions. It sends them through the engine, where they are burned and converted into energy and other emissions produced by the engine itself (such as carbon dioxide). The exhaust system then pushes these emissions out of the vehicle through the exhaust pipe. A flooded car may have damaged anyone or all parts of this system, which could result in a car that is a lot noisier than normal or one that doesn't run properly at all.
Why Check Your Flooded Car?
The longer a flooded car sits, the greater the damage. This is because floodwater is highly corrosive and will begin damaging a vehicle's systems almost immediately.
The large majority of cars that are flooded are considered total losses. Why? Because the cost of repairing a flood-damaged car is often higher than the cost of replacing it. While some flooded cars can be salvaged, many others cannot.
For example, fixing a flood-damaged car that sustained $5,000 in damage might cost $10,000 or more. As a result, many cars that have been flooded are considered salvage vehicles that can be repaired and sold by dealerships and private parties.
Furthermore, most insurance companies won't cover a flooded vehicle, so if you've had your vehicle submerged in flood, you'll want to get it inspected for damage as soon as possible. The damage assessment process is complicated and varies from car to car—and the best way to prevent expensive repairs down the line is to have a thorough inspection performed by a certified professional mechanic who will likely spot most, if not all, of these issues.