Is It Safe To Drive a Car Damaged in a Flood?

By Nick Kurczewski 07/13/2023 12:01pm

Flooded cars on a city street

Quick Facts About Flooded Cars and Safety

  • Never drive a flooded car until you know the extent of any damage because even shallow water can harm brakes and internal damage may be more severe than what’s visible.
  • Just because a car has flood damage doesn’t mean it’s a total loss.
  • Watch out for too-good-to-be-true deals on automobiles right after a natural disaster, even if you live hundreds of miles away from the weather event.

Widespread flooding in Vermont is a recent example of catastrophic weather that leaves hundreds of ruined automobiles after the water recedes. If you live in a hurricane zone, you might experience torrential rain and heavy winds pushing a surge of ocean water, rapidly turning your driveway or garage into a murky swamp. And heavy rains and flash flooding also wreak havoc on vehicles. Even high-riding trucks and SUVs aren’t immune to the dangers and costly repairs caused when a wall of water rushes into your home or workplace.

The main concern is that unless your vehicle was completely submerged, it’s hard to know how extensive the damage might be. Is it only cosmetic, and is the car safe to drive after a flood? Or is the internal damage even more severe than it appears on the surface?

We’ve compiled eight tips for owners and potential buyers dealing with a flood-affected vehicle. Sure, using this common-sense advice might keep you safe from scams and help you save money. And while your financial security is important, your physical safety is paramount. Flooded cars may have hidden problems that can cause accidents.

Tips for Handling Flooded Cars

  • Contact your insurance company and let them know what happened. Your auto insurance policy might cover the repair or replacement costs if you have comprehensive coverage. Take photos of visible damage. Be sure to focus on the waterline if the water has receded considerably by the time you have access to the vehicle.
  • When in doubt, don’t drive a flooded car until you know the extent of any damage. You might return to your vehicle hours or even days after the water recedes. Foul water might seep into the engine, so starting the car could make a bad problem much worse (and more expensive). Even relatively shallow floodwater is still corrosive and can significantly affect the car’s brakes.
  • Read between the lines, or at least try to look for one. Like a ring around a dirty bathtub, you might notice a subtle line on the car’s exterior body panels, windows, and possibly inside the cabin itself. This likely indicates where the water crested, and it could give a good idea about the severity of the flooding. With this in mind, it’s still best not to drive the vehicle until you have it checked by an expert.
  • Dry the car as quickly as you can. Open the doors and windows and remove any floormats. As we’ll discuss below, this is especially important if saltwater or a brackish mix of fresh and saltwater has flooded your vehicle.
  • We’re focusing most of our attention on advice centered around flooded vehicles that are parked. However, we must reinforce a basic driving rule. Purposefully driving on a flooded road is just plain dumb. Please don’t do it! You could be putting your life at risk and the safety of others, never mind the health of your car. For example, if water gets into the vehicle’s air intake, you will be in big trouble and stop dead in your tracks. And while that 4-wheel-drive SUV you’re piloting might seem impervious to anything Mother Nature throws your way, even the toughest trucks can get stranded or bogged down in high water with unknown obstacles lurking beneath the surface.
  • The good news is that not every flooded car will be a total loss. If the water levels got high enough to soak the interior carpets, but not so high as to ruin the engine and electrical system, you could resolve things by spending several hundred dollars or more for a professional cleaning. Again, it’s best to talk to your insurance company and have the car inspected by an expert.
  • Having any water in your vehicle is a problem. Saltwater is even more damaging due to the corrosive effect it can have on rubber hoses and wiring. Cars that sit in saltwater for any length of time can develop serious problems with the electrical system and brakes. Remember, after making it through flooding, the last thing you need is a car that unexpectedly refuses to stop at a red traffic signal.
  • Beware of any too-good-to-be-true deals on cars and trucks immediately following a natural disaster. State regulations determine when a car or truck is considered a total loss due to flooding. This helps prevent unscrupulous sales tactics, especially when a large-scale natural disaster affects thousands of vehicles in one location.