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Flooded cars are a problem for their owners — and future car buyers

Many owners of flooded cars could find that, despite carrying insurance, they are out of luck when it comes to recouping their losses.

Residents across the country are still mopping up from the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which hit the Gulf Coast before sweeping up into the Northeast, leaving parts of New York City and its suburbs under water this past week.

Dozens were killed, many after being trapped in their cars by flood waters. News and social media from across the New York-New Jersey region show cars that were abandoned along major highways as well as neighborhood streets.

With prices for used cars at record levels, the temptation to resell flood-damaged cars could prove more tempting than ever this year.

The flooding from Ida caps a summer season that has left many parts of the country waterlogged. That, in turn, has created major headaches for car owners — and car buyers. Thousands of vehicles have been seriously damaged or completely ruined. But many owners soon could find that, despite carrying insurance, they are out of luck when it comes to recouping their losses.

In the months to come, meanwhile, some of those flood-damaged vehicles may show back up on the used vehicle market through an appropriately named scam known as “title washing.” Someone buying one of those vehicles could be in for a number of headaches.

When a vehicle is submerged, it is subject to developing all sorts of issues, starting with mold. Body panels and other components can rust. Water can damage engines. And then there are all the electronic circuits that control everything from power windows to a car’s safety and infotainment systems. They can suffer intermittent or complete failures.

"A car that's been in a flood, with the engine emerged for any length of time, will never be the same," said Carl Sullivan, a veteran inspector for California-based AiM Mobile Inspections.

Drying out a car as quickly as possible, especially if it’s been submerged in salt water, is critical, Sullivan and other experts stress. They also warn drivers not to immediately try to start up a vehicle after a flood, especially one where water might have gotten into the engine. That could lead to a catastrophic failure known as hydrolock. Instead, find a repair shop trained in dealing with water damage and have the vehicle towed in.

Motorists should take detailed pictures that can help support an insurance claim. Unfortunately, many owners discover too late that their coverage doesn’t include flooding.

“If you want to be covered for flood damage of your car you’re going to need comprehensive coverage which takes in acts of god such as hail damage or flood damage,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, an analyst with website MoneyGeek.

If your vehicle is new and still covered by a loan or lease, Fitzpatrick noted, you likely carry comprehensive insurance, as it’s normally required as a part of your agreement. But older vehicles that have been paid off, he added, often have just the more minimal insurance coverage most states require. In that case, repairs — or even the replacement of the entire vehicle — may have to come out of pocket.

For those looking forward, industry data show comprehensive coverage typically adds between $400 and $500 annually to your insurance bill, though a variety of factors can influence the figure, including where you live, the cost of the vehicle and your driving record.

Vehicle owners aren’t the only ones who need to worry about flood-damaged vehicles, however. And that warning is especially important at a time when inventories of new and used cars are in especially short supply.

Legally, any vehicle damaged or declared totaled due to flooding should have that clearly marked on its title.

Legally, any vehicle damaged or declared totaled due to flooding should have that clearly marked on its title. Most of them will either be scrapped and recycled or they may be broken down for parts. In some cases, owners may try to dry out a vehicle and then sell it, without alerting the buyer that it had been in a flood, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

There are also plenty of scam artists, the NICB notes, who make a living out of acquiring flooded vehicles at bargain prices. The cars are cleaned up, then taken out of state where the VIN (the unique Vehicle Identification Number) is switched and the car is retitled with no indication it has been damaged.

Purchase one of these vehicles and you might not immediately notice any problems but, over time, the smell of mold could become apparent, corrosion might develop, or lights and electrical circuits could start giving you trouble.

“Water-damaged vehicles can be transported anywhere for resale, and often continue to appear in the marketplace for many months following major floods,” AAA spokesperson Ellen Edmonds said in a statement.

The travel and road service recommends motorists acquire a vehicle history from companies like CarFax before purchasing a used car, truck or crossover. It should reveal if the vehicle has been flood damaged. Many buyers also take a vehicle to a mechanic to be checked out.

Because of ongoing shortages of semiconductor chips, new vehicle production has plunged and dealers are short of inventory this year. That’s sending many customers over to the used car market which, in turn, has driven up prices for previously owned vehicles to record levels. For some scam artists — as well as owners who don’t have insurance on their vehicles — the temptation to resell flood-damaged cars could prove more tempting than ever this year.