We’ve all seen the terrible pictures coming out of Houston and surrounding areas, of neighborhoods turned into lakes of murky brown water, most often with the flooded remains of cars and trucks barely visible above the surface.
It is estimated that 500,000 vehicles were ruined by flood waters in the Houston metropolitan area, adding to the devastation of people’s lives as the result of Hurricane Harvey. Being immersed in water, especially filthy flood water, essentially destroys a vehicle, leaving it prone to a myriad of mechanical, electrical and structural woes, such as uncontrollable rust.
But what of the thousands of classic cars and trucks in the Houston area, those kept in garages or parked in driveways in flooded areas? What heartbreak awaits those vintage-vehicle enthusiasts when they are finally able to return home and assess the damage?
“It kind of depends on where they’re at, whether it’s salt water or fresh water, how high the water got, as far as the vehicle being totaled,” said Jonathon Klinger, a spokesman for Hagerty, the nation’s leading collector car insurance and valuation company. “Of course, we also have water seeping into the mechanical components, the engine and transmission.”
Although the flooding is gradually receding in the Texas communities, it still will be awhile before classic vehicle owners or the insurance companies are able to tally up what all has been lost.
“It’s still very early yet, from a car standpoint,” Klinger said. “There are an awful lot of people who have not been able to get back to their houses yet.”
Nearly five years ago, when Hurricane Sandy slammed New York and New England, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 classic and specialty vehicles were lost. Harvey’s toll could be comparable.
“It’s going to be on par (with Sandy),” Klinger said. “Whether there are more vehicles lost to Sandy vs this, we won’t have that answer for a couple weeks, at the very minimum.”
But at this point in the Texas disaster, Klinger notes, the fate of collector cars takes a back seat to the people who are endangered or have had their lives so badly disrupted.
“First and foremost, we’re most concerned about people’s personal safety and well-being,” he said. “The cars are special and all that, but they’re secondary compared with people’s lives.”
Classic car dealers in the Houston area are bracing for the influx of owners seeking assistance with flood-damaged vehicles.
“I would imagine that as things kind of clear up here, I’ll start getting calls from people looking for help,” said James Stanley at Gateway Classic Cars’ Houston locations.
Stanley said their business was fortunate in not having any flood damage to the showroom or collector vehicles.
“When we came in yesterday, we were relieved that we didn’t have any damage to anything,” he said.
Once car owners are able to get back to their homes, or what’s left of them, there are some things that should be done immediately if they want to save their vehicles.
“The big thing is getting it dry, getting the rust out of there, make sure no rust is settling in,” Stanley said. “The one thing that kills a classic is rust.”
Klinger suggested that those returning to their homes also need to give their flooded cars some attention amid all the household chaos.
“You want to minimize further damage,” Klinger said. “That’s critical because if your car is flooded, chances are your house is flooded and the car might get a lower priority. But if you want to fix the car down the road, there are simple steps you should do now to minimize further damage.
“The first thing you want to do is to disconnect the battery. Once the electrical system is under water, damage is happening. And roll down the windows if you can or leave the doors open, start to get some ventilation to it.”
Rugs and other movable interior and trunk items should be taken out, since these things can hold moisture against the vulnerable metal parts of the body and frame.
Since water can enter and mix with the oil and other fluids in the engine, transmission, differential, fuel tank and brake-system hydraulics, drain them as soon as possible and replace the fluids. Do not attempt to start or drive the vehicle until after the fluids have been changed.
Once the flood waters have gone and other priorities are dealt with, the vehicle owner will have to decide what to do with the water-damaged classic.
“Anything can be fixed, by the way,” Klinger noted. “Cars that were flooded in Katrina and Sandy got fixed, but you have to literally tear the car apart to the bare body, have it chemically dipped and have it rebuilt back up.
“What determines if a vehicle has been totaled is how much it’s going to take to repair it relative to what the vehicle is insured for.”
If the car is declared totaled, the owner has two choices: take the insurance-company check and hand over the car or truck to the insurer for disposal, or if the owner wants to repair it regardless, keep the car and receive a check minus the salvage value of the vehicle.
On that note, Klinger added that policy holders always need to make sure their classics are insured for their full value, which in the case of most classic-vehicle insurers, involves a declared value that’s agreed upon with the owner.
“If it’s underinsured, it’s totaled relative to its insured value,” he said. “All of a sudden it gets totaled for what it’s insured for rather than what the car is worth. That’s not a situation you want to be in.”
Many owners who opt to keep their flood-damaged vehicles do so because they are highly valuable, into the six figures or beyond where the cost of restoration makes sense. Or else they do so because the classic has sentimental value, or is a family heirloom, in which case the owner is willing to go under water financially as well as literally.
The collector car losses due to Harvey are expected to be similar to those incurred from Sandy, with most vehicles being in the lower end of market values because those are the ones more-likely to be stored at people’s homes in typical neighborhoods. Ford Mustangs, Chevrolet Corvettes and Camaros were the most-reported flood-damaged cars after Sandy, according to insurance industry reports.
“The vast number of losses will be entry-level type cars, cars with less than $50,000 value,” Klinger said. “Once you get to higher-end vehicles or people who have large collections, more thought goes into where the vehicle is stored, meaning it’s not in a low-lying flood zone.
“There might be some higher-end vehicles impacted, but it’s not going to be the majority of them.”
Looking further down the road, potential buyers of classic cars or any used cars must be on the lookout for vehicles that have been inundated in floods, and most likely will turn out to be lemons. Although titles for insured vehicle are branded with salvage notations for flood cars, fraudulent sellers will ship cars through various states where the brand can be lost, and the vehicle appear to be an undamaged.
Flood cars that have never had insurance claims could also be sold with unbranded titles.
As with the used-car market after Katrina and Sandy, there are expected to be thousands of flood-damaged cars offered as undamaged used vehicles in the coming months. The National Crime Insurance Bureau issued a warning Thursday to consumers regarding flood cars.
“NICB warns that buyers be particularly careful in the coming weeks and months as thousands of Harvey-damaged vehicles may reappear for sale in their areas,” according to a news release. “Vehicles that were not insured may be cleaned up and put up for sale by the owner or an unscrupulous dealer with no disclosure of the flood damage.”
To detect whether a vehicle has been in a flood:
• Sit in the car with the doors and windows closed and taking a good sniff, which could reveal the scent of moisture or mold. Also look and smell for any air freshener that could be masking the musty smell.
• Look for obvious signs of dirty water being present in the interior, such as on rugs and upholstery (beware of replacements), or silt under the seats and behind the dashboard.
• Examine under the hood for signs of water. Use a flashlight to check behind mechanical parts and in crevasses for signs of silt or debris accumulation. Do the same in the hidden areas of the trunk.
• Check any exposed metal parts for unusual signs of rust, such as screw heads, as well as under doors, body sills and wheel wells. Once a car has been under water, it can rust unseen from the inside out.
• Look for droplets of condensation inside headlights and taillights, dashboard gauges and interior lights.
While those checks will provide some assurance, bringing a vehicle to a reputable mechanic for a more-thorough inspection would be the best course of action. If the seller refuses a mechanic’s inspection, then walk away.
And that includes collector cars and trucks. So even for a love-at-first-sight dream car, beware of the flood-damaged classic vehicle that could turn into a total nightmare.