When Hurricane Ian hit the beaches of South Carolina about a month ago, my wife and I were sitting in a luxury vacation home on Pawleys Island watching split-screen images of the storm: non-stop TV coverage and the vast, churning ocean outside sliding glass doors.
We were protected by a sturdy four-story concrete building and were in no physical danger. Lose a beach and tennis day, get on with it. The forecast for the next day was sunny and warm.
Suddenly the electricity went out.
As I stepped into the exterior corridor to see if our neighbors had lost power as well, I looked down and was shocked to see that the parking lot had become a lake and my 2006 Toyota Camry was submerged a few feet in water.
It was one of an estimated 358,000 vehicles damaged or totally destroyed by Hurricane Ian, according to CARFAX.
Of course, the storm’s destruction of homes, mostly in Florida, was far more devastating. But when your car is abruptly wiped out while you’re on vacation, it immediately becomes a three-part nightmare: try to fix it, come home, and buy another vehicle.
The day before the storm, the building’s maintenance team told renters they happened to see that the property had flooded during hurricanes in the past and advised them to move their cars elsewhere.
Nobody told us.
What to do if a car is flooded?
The last two days of our week-long vacation were quickly swept away by the current.
How high would the water go? It already covered about two-thirds of the tires, but would it reach the trunk? The motor? It didn’t seem wise to try to get it out of the lagoon, but should I try? A few guests spilled out in SUVs.
And what was this noxious liquid anyway—rainwater or salt water from the surging ocean? Saltwater is far more corrosive to metal and rubber parts.
As if that wasn’t enough of a punch in the stomach, it was my birthday.
Luckily the water never got over the tires. Maintenance workers assured me it was rainwater. And by early evening it was largely drained from the property. Maybe we could avoid disaster.
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When I got in the car the next day, the floorboards were soaked but everything else was dry, including the engine. I crossed my fingers, turned the ignition key and all the dashboards flashed.
But wait, the car started! The sodden floorboards had messed up the electronics, but apparently the engine was fine, or so I thought.
I borrowed a vacuum from maintenance, removed as much as I could, and called a local auto repair shop. The customer service representative told me to drive the car over and they would check it for free.
My first break Or so I thought.
When I did that, the mechanic said the car’s body control module – the brain of the car’s electrical system – wasn’t communicating with his scanner. I had to let the car dry out and wasn’t supposed to drive it.
How about you tell me that before I ride it?
I took the car back to the resort but later that night it wouldn’t start. The power windows and door locks stopped working. The car appeared to be a total loss.
Lesson #1: If your car is flooded and the floorboards are soaked, don’t drive it, even if you can.
The moisture can spread and cause a short circuit, says Robert Passmore, department vice president, personal lines, for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.
“The main electronics harness runs right down the middle of the car,” just above the floorboards, Passmore says. “Have towed” to a gas station. Even then, he said, “There’s a good chance it’ll be a total loss.”
Let’s go home
I spent the last day of our vacation booking a rental car so we could return home.
I had to rent a car to drop off at the airport in Raleigh, North Carolina and a second from Raleigh to Northern Virginia.
To do this we had to transfer golf clubs, tennis racquets, books, a deflated soccer ball, a heating pad, and other junk from a decade from the trunk of my Camry to rental car #1, then to rental car #2, and finally to rental car #2 our terraced house.
Total cost: $312. This came out of pocket because my wife and I didn’t have rental car coverage in our insurance policy and figured if one of our cars was damaged in Virginia we could share the other.
Buying a used car
None of these issues compare to the stress of looking for another used Camry over the past five weeks.
With new cars in short supply due to supply chain issues early in the pandemic, buyers flocked to used cars, sending prices skyrocketing.
The national median dealer price for a used car on CARFAX in August was $29,000, up 58.4% from $18,300 in May 2020, according to the used car research firm.
Recently, used car inventories have stabilized and prices have started to fall. Until Ian that is, which NerdWallet says has thrown hundreds of thousands of car buyers into an already tight used car market.
I’ve spent weekdays obsessively scrolling through endless listings for 2006-2017 Camrys on Cars.com, typically ranging from $10,000 to $21,000 depending on mileage and year. Weekends are consumed by trips to shiny big dealerships and cramped, rough-hewn used-car lots to test drive a stunning parade of Camrys in search of that elusive model worthy of a suddenly exorbitant price tag.
I had researched what the fair price should be (usually several thousand dollars below list price) in the Kelly Blue Book and eagerly showed it to the seller.
they scoff. “Show me a real car that was sold at that price,” they say.
When you try to bargain, a time-honoured ritual I thought, they say, “These days (list) prices are pretty fixed.”
I’ve learned that the big shiny dealers charge high “processing” and “dealer set up” fees that can add a few thousand dollars to the cost. Some of the small used car exchanges advertise with good bargains and tell you on the phone that the car you want is still available. But when you arrive you might learn that it was sold days before.
Don’t worry – they have others.
I found a 2006 Camry with 66,000 miles that drove well – the same model with the same mileage that I bought in 2011 for $11,000 that Ian decimated.
The price: $10,998. I passed because I couldn’t bear to pay the same amount for a car that should have lost thousands of dollars in value over the last 11 years.
Of course I complained about the damage to the health insurance company. I should expect to be paid what the car is worth in the current bloated market, something between a dealer’s selling price and a private seller’s, says Passmore.
I’m still waiting for the check.
And still looking for another Camry.
Paul Davidson covers the economy for USA TODAY.