Sandy-damaged cars aren't suitable for collectors

A view of submerged cars on Avenue C A view of submerged cars on Avenue C and East 7th Street in Manhattan, after severe flooding caused by Superstorm Sandy. (Oct. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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I’ve received an extraordinary number of e-mails and telephone calls regarding “Hurricane Sandy” cars. Many were general inquiries about how to avoid buying one of these cars. But you would be surprised at how people all over the country are seeking to buy classic cars that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. In the aftermath of this hurricane I’ve worked on behalf of both classic car owners as well as the insurance companies, and I simply can’t understand why anyone would want to buy one of these damaged cars on purpose.

In a general sense, most collectors know that’s its best to steer clear of “flood cars.” And there’s a good reason for that. Once a car has been under water, or even partially submerged, it’s very likely to be a constant source of problems. That’s why submarines are constructed differently than automobiles. They are meant to go under water. Cars are not.

Some people who have contacted me couldn’t understand why these cars could not simply be “dried out” and put back on the road. Others with a minimum of mechanical knowledge understood that in addition to allowing the car to dry out, all of the fluids would need to be changed.

Those who have turned a wrench or two realized that after drying out the car and changing the fluids, the real work would begin. Mechanical, hydraulic, and electrical components that were compromised would need to be replaced. These people were all correct, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. You may have noticed that I made no mention of being contacted by any people who earn their living repairing or restoring cars.

That’s because these people know what lies below the tip of any iceberg. A whole lot more iceberg.

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As compared to modern cars, classic cars are fairly simple. But they still share common fundamentals of construction. These fundamentals which are virtually unchanged in over a century include frames and bodies that are made of steel, internal combustion engines, surfaces that are upholstered in natural or manmade materials, and electricity that is conducted through wiring. None of these components does particularly well when submerged in water. They fare even worse when submerged in salt water.

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While it is theoretically possible to repair a car that has been submerged in water, there are many reasons not to. The time and cost in doing so will almost always exceed the value of the car. Even if the car operates in a satisfactory manner after it has been repaired, chances are that it will not continue to do so as corrosion continues in hidden areas. These are the reasons that most insurance companies don’t hesitate to declare a car a total loss even if it has only been partially submerged. Insurance companies have taken the art of gambling and turned it into a science.

This is what their entire business is based on, and to them a “flood car” is a bad gamble. If these reasons are not enough to convince you that buying a “flood car” is a bad idea, consider the fact that in most cases your car will end up with a “salvage title,” a “branded title,” or a “flood title,” or some equivalent. This information will be available to any future buyers via online services such as Carfax.

Now I know that I’m going to get a lot of e-mails from people telling me that there are ways to avoid this, and that most classic cars in New York do not have titles anyway, so concealing the flood history will be easy. But now we’re entering a gray area wherein dwell those people who are selling exactly the cars that we are trying to avoid.

I’ve seen a lot of these “flood cars,” and while some look as if they were used for an underwater scene in a James Bond movie, the truth is that some don’t look bad at all.

It is these cars that tempt many into believing that they could “get a great deal” on the car and re-sell it at a substantial profit. But I would ask you this question: Could you earn this substantial profit if you disclosed the fact that the car was a “flood car”? Obviously the answer is “No.” So, in essence your profit would be earned by withholding valuable information. In many cases this could have legal implications that could land you in court. Insurance companies and collectors hire people like me to testify against these sellers.

If the only way to make a profit on a particular vehicle is by withholding information, then that car is not “a deal.” Sometimes the best deal is the one you walk away from. 

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