You can easily spot one of the 250 flooded write-offs at Michael Douglas Auto Salvage in Carlisle.
Not only because it has the word ‘floody’ scrawled on the windscreen but also because it’s covered with a film of brown silt.
Move closer and you can see the heavy condensation on the windows, dirty water in the headlights and a tide mark in the engine bay. Open the driver’s door – being careful to stand back to allow the stench of sewage and flood water to escape – and water sloshes in the door pockets, while silt covers the floor, the seats and much of the fascia. The steering wheel is a circle of green mould.
It and the other flooded cars started arriving at the breaker’s yard in December, soon after storm Desmond and then storms Eva and Frank did their worst – and they’re still coming.
“People have had more urgent problems to deal with, such as clearing their flooded homes,” says owner Michael Douglas. “Many people are only now thinking about what to do with their flooded cars.”
The Association of British Insurers says that as a result of December’s storms, its members have received 5600 claims for flood-damaged vehicles. It expects the total value of these claims to be about £26 million, a figure that applies to comprehensively insured cars that are covered for flood damage.
Most will be written off and their owners paid a settlement cheque by the insurer to cover its replacement. The most seriously damaged ones will be declared category A or B write-offs, and will then be scrapped or crushed.
The less seriously damaged will be flagged as category C or D. These can be returned to the road after repair, although a category C car must be inspected first.
Cars with third-party cover are not insured for flood damage. As a result, depending on its condition, the owner of a flooded car has little choice but to sell it as scrap to a vehicle breaker such as Michael Douglas, for around £90.
However, experts are concerned that desperate owners who cannot afford to scrap their car (or even owners of comprehensively insured cars who cannot afford to lose their no-claims bonus) may be tempted to dry it out and sell it on to an unsuspecting buyer. Admittedly, the nature of modern vehicles, with their complex electrical systems, means that only the least flood-damaged cars could pass undetected, but it’s a risk nonetheless.
Earlier this month Neil Hodson, deputy managing director of vehicle information company Cap HPI, warned car buyers to be on the lookout for rising numbers of flood-damaged cars entering the car market in the coming months.
“There’s a danger that some car owners may try to sell on their flood-damaged vehicle, once its interior has dried out and it has been cleaned,” he said. “Omitting its history will leave the new owner in the dark about its real condition.”
James Carswell, of Scotia Vehicle Inspections in Glasgow, has inspected hundreds of flood-damaged cars in recent weeks and fears that many third-party-insured cars will be sold on in a dangerous and contaminated state.
“I expect hundreds of flooded third-party vehicles will come onto the market,” he says. “I went to Otley in Yorkshire to inspect a flood-damaged Ford Transit mini-bus recently. It should have been scrapped, but the owner said he couldn’t afford to and that instead he’d fix it up and sell it on.”
December’s floods are not the first to have struck UK towns and cities. Michael Ward, a used car inspector based in Bradford, recalls examining a Suzuki Vitara for a customer when the car was advertised for sale shortly after the city was flooded in 2007. The car had no write-off history, but Ward suspected that it had been the victim of flooding.
“The metal frames under the seats and dashboard were badly corroded,” he says. “I advised my customer not to buy it.”
Ward agrees with Carswell that previously flooded, third-party-insured cars are those most likely to be sold on, but he says they won’t necessarily be the older cars usually associated with this level of cover.
“Many fleet cars are only third-party insured and I expect some of the least damaged will be offered for sale without their history being disclosed, rather than being scrapped,” he says.
Carswell says it’s not only mainstream but also classic cars that are destined to be repaired and sold on. “I have inspected over two dozen classics in recent weeks, all of them flooded mid-refurbishment,” he says. “Their owners had each accepted an average £15,000 insurance settlement, which some planned to spend on repairing the car before selling it.”
Back at the breaker’s yard, Douglas reflects on the human tragedy behind each of his 250 flooded cars. “For people who lost their homes in the floods, losing their car was the last straw,” he says. “Without a car, how do they get their kids to school? How do they get to work?”
One can only hope that in their desperation to be back on the road, they don’t buy someone else’s dried-out ‘floody’.
Tips on how to avoid buying a flood-damaged car
Check the windows - open and close
Sniff the seats and headlining
Check the carpets are dry and the windows free of condensation
Look for premature rust
Check under the bonnet for discoloration and a tide mark
Check that all the dashboard lights work
Check if the windows steam up after you turn on the heater
Check the light clusters for trapped water and condensation
Take it for a drive, checking for smooth running and no wheel bearing noises
If in doubt, have it professionally inspected