Immersion in water can wreak havoc on a car, especially its engine, electrical system, and interior. If your car has been immersed in water more than halfway up its wheels, follow these 10 steps to assess and address the damage.
Call Your Insurance Company
Regardless of the extent of the flood damage, the first thing you should do is call your insurance company. Flood damage is generally covered by comprehensive (fire and theft) insurance, so even if you don’t have collision coverage, you may be covered for whatever repairs or replacements you’ll encounter. Your insurance company will probably be overwhelmed with claims, so it’s a good idea to start the process early.
Do Not Start the Vehicle
It’s tempting to turn the key to see if your car still works, but if there is water in the engine, attempting to start it could damage it beyond repair. Follow the rest of the steps below before you attempt to drive your car again.
Determine How Deep the Vehicle Was Submerged
Mud and debris usually leave a waterline on the car, inside as well as out. Most insurance companies will consider the car totaled (damaged beyond economically-reasonable repair) if water reaches to the bottom of the dashboard or higher. If this is the case, then have your car towed to a mechanic for a professional assessment. If the water didn’t rise much above the bottom of the doors, your car will probably be fine and you can proceed with the next steps.
Dry Out the Interior
Debris lines are only useful for noting the level at which the vehicle was submerged in still water. They don’t account for surges in the level of water, which means the interior and engine could still have gotten wet. In this case, you want to work quickly to prevent mold from forming. Start by opening the doors and windows and putting towels on the floor to soak up water, but you should plan on replacing anything that got wet, including carpets, floor mats, door panels, seat padding, and upholstery. Remember, these repairs are likely to be covered by your comprehensive insurance.
Check the Oil and the Air Cleaner
If you see droplets of water on the dipstick or the level of the oil is high, or if the air filter has water in it, do not attempt to start the engine. Have it towed to a mechanic to have the water cleared and the fluids changed. If you are a hardcore do-it-yourselfer, you can try to change the oil and the air filter yourself, but only if you’re completely sure all the components in the rest of the engine are dry.
Check All Other Fluids
Fuel systems on newer-model cars are usually sealed, but older cars may need to have their fuel systems drained. Brake, clutch, power steering, and coolant reservoirs should be checked for contamination. Again, you should only attempt this if you are an experienced home mechanic. Otherwise, have the car towed to your dealership for a thorough diagnostic.
Check All Electrical Systems
Next, check everything electrical. Do that by cranking the ignition key or otherwise starting the car, then move through each electrical component one by one: Headlights, turn signals, air conditioning, stereo, power locks, windows and seats, and interior lights. If you note anything even slightly amiss—including the way the car runs or the transmission shifts—that could be a sign of electrical trouble. Take the car to a mechanic, and remember that the damage may be covered by insurance.
Check Around the Wheels and Tires
Before attempting to drive the car, set the parking brake and look for debris lodged around the wheels, brakes, and underbody. Even a small stick or clump of dried mud can make the car shimmy and shake once you get it up to speed. If necessary, take a high-spray hose and clean in and around the wheels thoroughly, but be careful where you aim. You just dried out your engine and interior and don’t want to rewet those areas.
If in Doubt, Have Your Car Declared a Total Loss
A flood-damaged car can experience problems months or even years after the event. If your car is a borderline case, or you don’t have confidence in your or your mechanic’s attempts to dry it out and repair it, consider pushing your insurance company to declare the car a total loss. Replacing it will cost money, but you may save yourself from some major (and expensive) headaches down the road.
Beware of Flood-Damaged Replacements
Many cars that are totaled due to flooding are simply cleaned up and re-sold. Before buying a used car, have the title checked; words like “salvage” and “flood damage” are giant red flags. Get a comprehensive history on the car—if it has been moved from another state and re-titled (especially a state that has been subject to flooding just before the title change), the seller may be trying to hide flood damage.