Water can wreak havoc with a car's engine, electrical system, and interior. If your car has been in water more than halfway up its wheels, follow these ten steps to assess and address the damage.
1. Do not attempt to start the car. It's tempting to turn the key and see if the car still works, but if there is water in the engine, trying to start it could damage it beyond repair. I've outlined a few basic checks below, but if in doubt, its best to have your car towed to a mechanic.
2. Determine how deep the car was submerged. Mud and debris should have left a waterline on the car, inside as well as out. If the water level stayed below the bottom of the doors, your car will probably be fine. Most insurance companies will consider the car totaled (damaged beyond reasonable repair) if the water reaches the bottom of the dashboard.
3. Call your insurance company. Flood damage is generally covered by comprehensive (fire and theft) insurance, so even if you don't have collision coverage, you may be covered for repairs. Your insurance company will probably be flooded (sorry) with claims, so it's a good idea to start the process early. (More about floods and car insurance)
4. Start drying the interior. If water got inside the car, mold will grow quickly. Start by opening the doors and windows and putting towels on the floor to soak up water, but you should ultimately replace anything that got wet, including carpets, floor mats, door panels, seat padding and upholstery. Remember, these repairs will probably be covered by your comprehensive insurance.
5. Check the oil and the air cleaner. If you see droplets of water on the dipstick or the level of the oil is high, or if the air filter has water in it, do not attempt to start the engine. Have it towed to a mechanic to have the water cleared and the fluids changed. (Hard-core do-it-yourselfers can try changing the oil then removing the spark plugs and cranking the engine to blow out the water, but we still recommend leaving this to mechanic.)
6. Check all the other fluids. Fuel systems on late-model cars are usually sealed, but older cars may need to have their fuel systems drained. Brake, clutch, power steering and coolant reservoirs should be checked for contamination.
7. Check all of the electrical systems. If the engine looks OK to start, check everything electrical: Headlights, turn signals, air conditioning, stereo, power locks, windows and seats, even the interior lights. If you note anything even slightly amiss -- including the way the car runs or the transmission shifts -- that could be a sign of electrical trouble. Take the car to a mechanic, and remember that the damage may be covered by insurance.
8. Check around the wheels and tires. Before attempting to move the car, look for debris lodged around the wheels, brakes and underbody. (Set the parking brake before crawling around the wheels!)
9. If in doubt, push to have the car totaled. A flood-damaged car can experience problems months or even years after the event. If your car is a borderline case, consider pushing your insurance company to total the car. Replacing it will cost money, but you may save yourself from some major headaches down the road.
10. Beware of flood-damaged replacements. Many cars that are totaled due to flooding are simply cleaned up and re-sold. Before buying a used car, have the title checked; words like "salvage" and "flood damage" are red flags. Get a comprehensive history on the car -- if the car has been moved from another state and re-titled, the sellers may be trying to hide flood damage.