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Contrary to popular belief, your car is designed to withstand a fair amount of water.
For example, your car’s carpets are rubber-backed to prevent water from penetrating to the metal floor, and your car’s paint prevents the metal underneath from oxidizing.
But your car’s protection from water only goes so far. If your car is completely submerged or flooded, it will probably be a total loss. And your car's limit is much smaller if there’s seawater involved. Here are the types of damage water does to your car and details about the amount of water needed to create a total loss car.
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What kinds of damage does water cause to your car?
There are several ways that water can cause your car to become a total loss and it doesn’t have to be fully submerged:
Electrical failures commonly happen when water comes in contact with electrified circuits. The water bridges the power and ground wires, shorting out the circuit. It can cause computer module malfunctions and burnt wires, but there’s more to it than that. Water can cause corrosion on electrical terminals that may not be evident for months or even years, giving you an unwanted surprise down the road.
Mechanical failures come in various forms, both internal and external. If water gets sucked into you running engine, it can cause a hydrolock or corrosion inside the engine. Water that penetrates ball joints, tie rods, differentials, and other mechanical components can cause premature wear due to lack of lubrication.
Mold and mildew form when organic material is in the water that floods your car. This is especially bad if the water sits on your carpet or upholstery for any length of time. Even after multiple attempts to clean mold and mildew, it frequently comes back to stink up your car. In fact, mold can total a car if it gets bad enough.
Rust and corrosion can happen whenever water meets bare metal. It may show up as harmless surface rust at first, but it doesn’t take long for it to become cancerous and spread far and wide on your car.
How much water damage will deem my car a total loss?
If you have the unfortunate event that your car is completely submerged in water, it will likely be totaled. Otherwise, smaller amounts of water will have different effects based on what kind of water hit your car.
The two types of water, seawater and freshwater, can cause drastically different effects. Depending on where you live, you probably only have to worry about one type of water damage.
Freshwater flooding is not a pleasant experience, but your car is surprisingly resilient to freshwater.
In many cases, so long as the water isn’t heavily contaminated by silt or pollution, your car can be immersed up to the dash and still be repaired instead of deemed a total loss. After a thorough drying out period, cleaning, and repairs to any damaged systems, your car can be used as normal once again.
If flooding goes into the dash level or higher, too many expensive electrical components will suffer water damage and your car will be a write-off.
Seawater damage is much less forgiving than freshwater. Anyone who lives near the coast knows that the salty seawater accelerates corrosion and quickly penetrates deep into your car.
If your car fills up to the door sills, it can likely be cleaned up and returned to the road. If water levels creep up into the seats, doors, and dash, the water damage will total your car. Repairs could exceed your car’s actual cash value and it’s simply not worthwhile for your car insurance to proceed with repairs instead of calling it a total loss.
If you live near the coast or you live in flood-prone areas, check how much coverage you have for water damage with your insurance provider. You may want to purchase optional flood coverage for your car in the unfortunate event of flooding in your area.
Key Takeaway: Cars can usually survive getting filled with freshwater up to the dash, but only as far as the door sills when it comes to saltwater. If you live close to either kind, you should check your water damage coverage.
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How do I claim flood damage on my car?
To claim flood damage on your car, call your insurance agent or company as soon as you find out about the damages and explain the situation. Take notes and pictures of your car, its condition, and all of the damages. Your carrier will send out an agent to assess the damages and help you through the rest of the process.
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