Why a flooded car is a total loss

A car that has been in a flood is usually so damaged that it is more expensive to repair it than replace it, making the car a total loss.

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Rachael Brennan

Rachael Brennan

Senior Editor & Licensed Auto Insurance Expert

Rachael Brennan is a senior editor and a licensed auto insurance expert at Policygenius. Her work has also been featured in MoneyGeek, Clearsurance, Adweek, Boston Globe, The Ladders, and AutoInsurance.com.

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As climate change continues unabated, hurricanes, flash floods, and torrential rain are becoming more common across the globe, including the U.S. [1] And any extreme weather event could potentially flood your car, causing a significant amount of damage and leaving your car a total loss. 

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As long as you have comprehensive coverage, your car insurance will cover a flooded car. Also, because flood damage can be so severe, drivers who are shopping for a used car need to avoid buying a vehicle that has been damaged in a flood. But to find out why flood damage means a car is a total loss, it’s important to understand how severe it can be.

Key takeaways

  • A flooded car is a car that has been partially or completely submerged in water to the point that the interior or the mechanical parts of the car (like the engine and transmission) have been damaged.

  • A car is considered a total loss when the cost to repair the car is higher than the cost to replace it, and flooding almost always causes enough damage to total a car.

  • A flooded car likely can’t be repaired, but your insurance company will pay you for it as long as you have comprehensive coverage.

  • Sometimes referred to as “other than collision” coverage, comprehensive covers non-collision damage like falling rocks, theft, and yes, flooding.

If your car was flooded, is it totaled?

Yes, for most people with a flood damaged car, total loss is their only option. A car is considered a total loss when the cost to repair the car is higher than the cost to replace it. Some states actually have standards in place, called total loss thresholds, that require insurance companies to consider a car totaled if the cost to repair it exceeds a certain percentage of its value. 

Because flood damage is so expensive to repair, flooding almost always causes enough damage to total a car. 

Why does flooding total a car?

A flood-damaged car is usually totaled because flooding causes such widespread damage that buying a new car is usually the more affordable option.

Flooding doesn’t just destroy one part of your vehicle, if water gets in it, it can leave your car totally undriveable for lots of reasons.  Here’s why water damage from flooding can destroy your whole car:

  • Water, sand, silt, and salt all end up in your engine compartment, which can destroy all of the belts, gears, and moving parts under your hood. 

  • When your seats, carpet, and other fabric parts of your car get soaked, they may not dry properly and could end up filled with mold and mildew. 

  • All of the lights, sensors, computer chips, and other electronic parts of your car will likely short circuit.

Filing a comprehensive coverage claim

If you have a flood-damaged car, total loss is all but guaranteed. A flooded car probably can’t be repaired, but drivers who have comprehensive coverage can file a claim with their car insurance company to replace their car.

Sometimes referred to as “other than collision” coverage, comprehensive car insurance covers non-collision damages that are out of your control, like damage from falling rocks or other objects, theft, vandalism, hitting a deer, and yes, flooding. 

Comprehensive coverage usually includes a deductible, so you will likely have to pay a portion of the cost to replace your car out-of-pocket, and unless you have new car replacement coverage, you’ll be paid out for the actual cash value (ACV) of your car, which accounts for its age and depreciation.

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What is considered flood damage on a car?

A flooded car is one that’s been partially or completely submerged in water to the point that the interior or the mechanical components (like its engine or transmission) have been damaged. Cars can be flooded by an extreme weather event, like a flash flood or a hurricane, or by an accidental flood, like a water main break.

In many (but not all) cases, the mechanical parts of a flooded car are destroyed to the point of being unusable. Beyond total destruction of a car, some of the most common problems in flooded cars include:

  • Strange smells: It can be impossible to clean every single part of a car, like behind the door panels, which means water that has flooded those areas can’t always be easily removed, leading to musty smells. And if the seats, carpeting, or other fabric parts of your car get flooded, it can be difficult to get all of the moisture out of them, causing mold and mildew to grow on the foam and fabric inside. 

  • Sand, dirt, and silt: If your car was submerged in a lake, or damaged by a flash flood,, it is likely the flood water was filled with dirt or sand, which then gets into unexpected places like the glove compartment or engine bay.

  • Rust and corrosion: Rust in strange places is a sure sign of flood damage. Previous flood damage can leave rusted or corroded screws or bolts under the hood, in the doors, or in the dashboard.

  • Moisture: Fogging in the covers for your lights (both interior and exterior) and condensation that occurs in strange places often happen in flood-damaged cars.

Is a car ruined if it's flooded?

Yes, a car that has been flooded is probably ruined, especially if it was flooded with saltwater or water filled with sand or silt. Cars with only a small amount of flood damage may be repairable but, most of the time, cars are ruined if they take on a significant amount of water damage.

If your car was partially flooded with clean freshwater (like if a pipe burst in your garage) it might be repairable, but more than a small amount of flood damage can destroy the mechanical, moving parts of your car and stain the seats and fabric parts of your vehicle with mold and mildew.

Can a flooded car be salvaged?

If the car was flooded by fresh water, like from a lake or a flash flood caused by rain, it could potentially be salvaged, depending on the amount of damage the flood caused. Salvaged just means your car is repaired to the point of usability after being declared a total loss.

If your car is salvaged after you filed a claim for a totaled car through your comprehensive coverage, your car insurance company will apply the salvage value of your car to your payout.

Saltwater, on the other hand, is corrosive. All the metal and mechanical parts in a vehicle that are flooded by saltwater are likely to be damaged beyond repair and won’t be salvageable.

Is it a good idea to buy a flood car?

No, buying a flood car is never a good idea. Flooding causes serious damage to cars and, as a buyer, you have no way of knowing whether or not the car will have long term problems because of flood damage. 

If you do decide to buy a flood car, be prepared for serious problems that require major repairs. 

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Frequently asked questions

Will FEMA pay for my flooded car?

FEMA does sometimes offer assistance for flooded vehicles, but there are limits to the assistance they offer. If you have more than one car and at least one of them works, FEMA is unlikely to provide assistance. Also, they don’t offer help if the damage is only cosmetic.

Is a flooded engine totaled?

There are two kinds of flooded engines. The first is an internal combustion engine that has been fed an excessively rich air-fuel mixture. An engine in this condition won’t start until the fuel has been cleared, but it isn’t damaged. However, a flooded engine that was submerged underwater is different, and the odds are good the engine is totaled and will need to be replaced. Have a mechanic take a look at the engine to find out if it could be repaired.

How can I check a car for a history of flood damage?

There are two things you should do when checking a car for past flood damage. The first is to research the history of your car to check for flood-related claims. You can get a free vehicle history by using the National Insurance Crime Bureau VINCheck Lookup. If you’ve checked the vehicle’s history, you can have a mechanic inspect the car for signs of flood damage.

References

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  1. U.N. Environment Programme

    . "

    How climate change is making record-breaking floods the new normal

    ." Accessed March 18, 2022.

Author

Senior Editor & Licensed Auto Insurance Expert

Rachael Brennan

Senior Editor & Licensed Auto Insurance Expert

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Rachael Brennan is a senior editor and a licensed auto insurance expert at Policygenius. Her work has also been featured in MoneyGeek, Clearsurance, Adweek, Boston Globe, The Ladders, and AutoInsurance.com.

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