Learn to Spot a Water-Damaged Classic Car
Perhaps no other natural disaster is as feared among classic car owners than those that involve water. A classic car parked in the path of raising waters will likely join in the list of casualties. Data from the National Climatic Data Center (NOAA) shows that the number of named tropical storms in the Atlantic has increased from an average of 9.5 storms in 1995 to 15.2 per year over the last five years. Katrina, Wilma and Sandy, among others, have all taken their toll, both in lives and property damage. As victims of these natural disasters attempt to restore their lives and liquidate damaged assets, more water-damaged cars than ever are flooding into the collector car market.
EFFECTS OF FLOOD DAMAGE
Not all flood damage spells the end for a classic car. If the water level didn’t reach the electronics of the car, a little bit of rust might be the only thing that needs to get fixed. Handled soon enough after the incident, the car might remain in service for many years to come.
Additionally, the type of water can affect a car differently. Salt water from rising sea water
or brackish water from flooding is far more damaging and corrosive than fresh water. Make no mistake, any kind of water getting into places it wasn’t meant to be is a bad thing where classic cars are concerned, but knowing exactly what kind of flood incident the car was involved in, as well as the steps taken to clean up the damage, could vastly impact the value of the car.
Mechanical and electrical parts are both affected adversely by water, and even though problems may not be immediately apparent, part failure could develop at any time. Rust and corrosion may not be readily apparent, but as time goes by, rust and corrosion on bolts and electrical connectors can get worse, even after the water has dried up. Dampness under the carpets and in the seats can cause dangerous molds or bacteria to take root, and are nearly impossible to fully remove. Even if the car wasn’t fully submerged, it doesn’t take much for insurance companies to admit the car was totaled.
Unless you have experience dealing with problems that arise from damage caused by water, it’s best to avoid flood-damaged vehicles.
HOW WATER-DAMAGED CLASSIC CARS GET ONTO THE MARKET
Insurance companies estimate that over 250,000 cars were damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and Katrina destroyed more than 400,000 vehicles before that. Certainly not all of them were collector cars, but you can bet that more than a few that were will find their way back onto the used market. A vehicle that is ruined by flood water is required to have a title that labels it as a salvaged vehicle, but the reality is that a savvy individual or an enterprising business can find ways around this. Ignorance, lax titling laws and outright deception all contribute to junk vehicles making their way back into the market.
A collector might not want to fess up to the fact that a vehicle he invested tens of thousands of dollars into, not to mention the time, was ruined by a flood. By working fast immediately following the flood, he might clean up most of the damage, and a few costly repairs later the vehicle might even look like it was never damaged at all. But corrosion caused by brackish water is more than skin deep. Confident that he restored the damages the vehicle sustained, he sells it without mentioning that it was damaged in a flood. It’s in cases like these that a vehicle history report like the ones offered by Carfax won’t do the buyer any good, as the private seller may not have disclosed the history of the vehicle.
Simple dishonesty often leads to cars that should have been scrapped ending up on a for-sale lot. Following major disasters, insurance companies are looking for ways to recoup losses from claim payouts. More than one such company has found its way into litigation because of attempts to auction vehicles that should have been in the junk yard. You can bet that not all of the companies that do this are caught.
Sometimes the sellers of these cars don’t have to break the law to get cash for a damaged vehicle. Shipping the car across state lines to a state that has relaxed titling laws also works. Buyers are rarely expecting that a car damaged by a flood in Long Island will show up for sale in Arizona. Sometimes the local titling laws will allow for the origin of the car to be easily hidden.
IDENTIFYING WATER DAMAGE
One of the best ways to identify a water-damaged vehicle is to rely on an inspector with training to do it for you. You can make use of the Cars On Line Inspection Network to get the help of trusted inspectors.
However, if you’re only casually interested, and you have the time and ability to look at the vehicle yourself, here are some things you’ll want to look for when investigating a vehicle for flood damage.
- Identifiers such as musty smells and water stains are a dead give-away. Be cautious if any foreign fragrances are present in the car, as it could be a sign the seller is attempting to mask other smells.
- Mud or mold under the carpets is a bad sign, and dampness not attributed to a leaking air conditioning pan is as well.
- Look for evidence of water in places water would not normally reach. If the vehicle was submerged, water or silt may have collected on upper surfaces that shouldn’t ever be exposed to these elements. Check areas in the engine bay, where cleaning up every part that can collect debris is difficult and time consuming.
- Get under the vehicles and see if there’s debris lodged in places it would be difficult to reach without the vehicle being submerged. Mud, sand, leaves and other types of debris can collect almost anywhere when the vehicle is underwater.
- When looking at electrical components, watch for debris behind wiring or rusted connectors. Often wires that suffered flood damage will be dry and brittle as a result of water evaporation.
- Look for dried rings or lines where water may have evaporated. Evaporation of water or the steps taken to clean it can result in unnatural fading that betrays a history of water damage.
- Moisture or evidence of evaporated water inside the headlights or behind gauge coverings is evidence the vehicle had been submerged.
- If the carpet has been recently cleaned, or the seats completely reupholstered, it could be a sign of flood damage. Be especially wary if these upgrades are not characteristic to how the rest of the car has been maintained.
- Check the title history of the vehicle for a salvaged or flood damage notation. A vehicle that was claimed as an insurance write-off is legally obligated to be marked as a flood-damaged or salvaged vehicle on the title. Use the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System to get more information on any vehicle you intend to purchase.
- Ask the seller. Most sellers aren’t dishonest and will want you to be satisfied with a purchase made from them. Even if the seller is attempting to hide something from you, asking them directly about it and gauging their reaction can lead to valuable information.
While “lemon laws” protect buyers of new vehicles in most states from faulty new car purchases, there are no similar laws to help buyers of used cars. You need to protect yourself by taking steps to know exactly what you’re buying. The NOAA predicts that the 2013 Atlantic Hurricane Season will produce between 13 and 20 named storms, with seven to 11 of those storms achieving hurricane status. Chances are that at least a few of those will make landfall, producing even more damaged collector cars to find their way into the market.