Buying and Rebuilding a Flood Car

flood cars
These flooded vehicles are typical of what you see at the insurance auction. Getty

The Spring of 2015 saw a wave of flood cars headed to market thanks to the massive rains and flooding that besieged Texas and neighboring states in the south central United States. But this is not the first time a region of the U.S. has suffered massive flooding followed by a glut of salvage titled vehicles hitting the market. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy were some of the biggest. 

What Happens After a Vehicle is in a Flood?
Whether it’s a single truck that slid too far down the boat ramp or hundreds of vehicles flooded when the levy gave way, the next step is the same.

An insurance company pays the owner of the vehicle for their ruined car or truck. They take the vehicles by the tractor trailer load to a holding area, where they then sit until they are auctioned off. Before a flood damaged, or otherwise totaled, vehicle can be sold it must be issued a new title that indicates it was at one time considered a total loss and was sold in some state of a complete mess. Depending on what state the car was in, the title will vary. In most states it gets a regular salvage title, and is eligible to be rebuilt. But in some states the vehicle will be given a much more damning title status - a Parts-Only flood title or a Certificate of Destruction. Cars branded with either of these titles cannot be rebuilt or put back on the road under any circumstances, so unless you want to take the vehicle apart and use the parts for another project, these are not a wise purchase.


Rebuilding a Flood Vehicle
When a vehicle is involved in a flood, the car that passes across the auction block can appear deceptively unscathed. But don’t be fooled by the shiny paint, there can be far more damage to a flooded vehicle than a severely wrecked car or truck. If you're buying a flood vehicle with the idea that you'll rebuild it, try to run as many checks and tests as you can before you hand over that wad of cash.

Don't even think of applying for a loan to buy a salvaged vehicle, it won't happen. In an insurance auction, you'll have very little to go on because the cars are displayed with no electrical power. In a flood-car situation, electrical issues are the most serious -- and most expensive -- demons you'll have to contend with. Floods can be strange, though. I've seen flood cars that had almost no electrical damage at all. I've also seen vehicles that continued to be haunted by electrical problems years after they were dried out. Before you even install a battery in the vehicle, it needs to be VERY dry. Moisture alone usually won't destroy a piece of automotive electronics, but moisture and electricity will fry a computer in a matter of milliseconds. If the electronics under the seat have been submerged, they can often be saved by unplugging and removing them for a proper dry out. If the vehicle smells like a musty, moldy mess, you should remove all of the carpets and soundproofing underneath. They might need to be replaced, but with them out of the car you can give a serious cleaning a try. Self service car washes with high pressure, soapy sprays can do wonders. You'll also need to give the car an oil change bConsidering efore you start it, as there's some chance the crankcase has been filled with water, too.


Buying a car that's been in a flood is risky, but if you go into things realistically and conservatively, you can get some serious value in the end. Just be diligent in your pre-purchase inspection and don't feel like you need to jump at the first vehicle that comes along.