Floodwaters can do long-term damage to vehicles

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A car caught in last week's flash flooding may seem OK at first. Once it is fully dried, and the engine and transmission are checked closely for water in the lubricating fluids, it may start and run fine, mechanics and insurance experts said.

But there are probably major problems lurking just beneath the surface as corrosion quickly sets in, shorting out electrical connections and leading to ongoing problems that can make the car far more expensive to fix than it is worth.

With so much more electrical wiring and computerized controls on modern vehicles, the chance of a flooded car escaping without serious problems is low, said Jim Rowland, owner of Muffler Express and Automotive Repair, 1205 N. Kingshighway in Cape Girardeau.

For example, he said, most electrical harnesses and the electronic control module are mounted on the car's floor, under the carpeting.

"Water damage is terrible," he said.

Other problems can show up in airbags and anti-lock braking systems. Water can invade the differential, the transmission and the engine and cause corrosion under the dashboard.

"They need to be taken to the salvage yard," Rowland said of flood-damaged cars.

Unlike buildings, which must be included in a National Flood Insurance Program policy to receive flood damage coverage, a vehicle owner with a comprehensive policy is usually covered in the event of a flood, insurance company representatives said. But for a car owner who has only liability coverage, the events of last week could have damaged one of their most important assets beyond repair.

Whether the car is listed as a total loss or whether repairs should be attempted will be based on an inspection by an adjuster, said Christina Loczinka, a spokeswoman for Allstate Insurance Co. "We will just have to look at each car individually, evaluate it and pay the claim on its own merits," she said. "We check the engine components and make sure the car is still good."

If a car is listed as a total loss, it can still find its way back onto the road with a salvage title. Properly disclosed, the Insurance Information Institute says, those cars can be opportunities for profit because they will sell for low prices and, with proper repairs, be roadworthy for a long time.

But too many times, according to a report from Carfax, a database that compiles vehicle history reports for buyers, the flood-damaged cars will appear on used car lots without any indication they have been in a flood. Hurricane Katrina, for example, ruined an estimated 75,000 cars and trucks and more than half of them were subsequently sold.

In Missouri, if a vehicle is less than seven years old, has sustained damage equal to 80 percent of its value or more and was the subject of an insurance settlement, a salvage title must be issued to put it back on the road, said David Griffith, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Revenue.

If the car is older than seven years, a salvage title is issued if the insurance company requests it, he said.

The salvage title does not, however, have any codes or other information revealing the reason the vehicle was declared a total loss by an insurer, Griffith said.

And when an individual car owner seeks to sell a vehicle caught in floodwaters, there is no requirement that a salvage title be obtained or that the seller disclose that the car was ever flooded, Griffith said.

"When somebody sells a car, like if you sold a vehicle to me, it wouldn't be required," he said. "If I ask you, it would be up to you to tell the truth or not."

To aid car buyers, the National Insurance Crime Bureau compiles a free database of cars damaged by flooding or other weather disasters. And Carfax, the commercial online guide to car histories, also has added an advisory to any vehicle that was last registered in a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster area.

And while a flood-damaged car may be an opportunity for a backyard mechanic to test his skills, for most people trying to keep a flood-damaged car on the road or pay for the repairs necessary to keep it running will be a losing proposition, Rowland said.

"You want to stay away from them," he said. "They can drive you crazy on diagnostics. You can have 100 to 150 electrical connections covered in moisture and silt."


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On the web:

National Insurance Crime Database: www.nicb.org

Carfax: www.carfax.com

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