Buying and Rebuilding a Flood Car

Dry It out and Get It Going

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

If you think buying, salvaging, and reselling flooded cars is a business you'd like to get into, it's important to know what you're doing. Certainly, you won't lack for inventory. Whenever the U.S. experiences a wetter than normal year, a wave of cars heads to market from the flood-besieged areas. We saw this happen with hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, as well as during the record floods in Texas in the spring of 2015 and in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, area in August 2016. In all instances, a glut of salvage titled vehicles hit the market, giving savvy investors an opportunity to make money. 

When a Vehicle Is Flooded

Whether it’s a single truck that slid too far down the boat ramp and into the water or hundreds of vehicles flooded when the levee gave way, the next step is the same. Insurance companies pay the owners for their ruined cars or trucks and then transport the vehicles to a holding area, where they sit until they are auctioned off.

Two Types of Titles

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. The title designation will vary according to the laws of the state in which the vehicle was registered. Most states will issue a regular salvage title, meaning the flood vehicle may be rebuilt. Very often, though, the title won't list the salvage status as due to flooding, or it will appear as a series of numbers or letters.

Some states will issue a much more damning title status, like 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. The only reason to buy these vehicles is for parts. Check with your state's motor vehicles division for the laws in your state.

Buyer Beware

If the flood car you're interested in receives a regular salvage title, then you are free to buy it, rebuild it and resell it. Just make sure you check its history first and know that your purchase is a gamble, not a guarantee. The car that passes across the auction block can appear deceptively unscathed. Don’t be fooled by the shiny paint—there can be far more damage than meets the eye.

If you're buying a flood vehicle with the idea that you'll rebuild it, try to run as many checks and tests as possible before you hand over that wad of cash. (And don't even think of applying for a loan to buy a salvaged vehicle. It won't happen.) Still, you'll have very little to go on because the cars are displayed without electrical power. In a flood-car situation, electrical issues are the most serious—and most expensive—demons you'll have to contend with. Water is strange. Some cars will have almost no electrical damage at all, while others will be haunted by electrical problems years after they were dried out. So, again, do what you can to check all that you can before you take a chance on the vehicle.

Dry It Out

Before you begin to rebuild you must ensure the vehicle is thoroughly dried out. If the electronics under the seat have been submerged, they can often be saved by unplugging and removing them from a proper dry out. If the vehicle smells like a musty, moldy mess, you should remove all of the carpets and soundproofing underneath. At this point you can try to clean them—self-service car washes with high pressure, soapy sprays can do wonders—but most likely they'll need to be replaced. 

Don't even think of replacing the battery until all the moisture is gone. While moisture alone usually won't destroy a piece of automotive electronics, moisture and electricity together will fry a vehicle's computer in a matter of milliseconds. Once you are confident your vehicle is dried out, you'll also need to give the car an oil change. With a new battery and clean oil, you'll have a much better handle on how the car runs, whether or not it needs starter/ignition work, and what, if anything, needs to be replaced electrically or electronically.

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.