Beware Of Flood-Damaged Cars

Don’t Get Tricked into Buying Cars with Water Damage

Beware Of Flood-Damaged Cars
January 18, 2016

Recent floods in Oregon, Washington State, Texas, South Carolina, California and other states drowned thousands of cars under muddy, polluted water. Once those vehicles are dried-out and cleaned-up, they could show up for sale, and you could be the one who ends up taking a bath.

A flood-damaged engine is difficult or close to impossible to repair. While water is a great thing to have in the cooling system, it can do serious damage when sucked into valves and engine cylinders. After that happens, the only choice may be to replace the engine completely. While the cosmetic aspects of a waterlogged car can be prettied up with a thorough cleaning, new carpet and upholstery, the body, wiring and electrical components remain prone to rust from trapped water.

After Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast, thousands of cars were ruined in the floods that followed. Many were scrapped or sold for parts, but at least one New Jersey dealer ran a scam where he obtained phony titles and sold the soggy cars to unwitting buyers. The dealer and others were charged by the state attorney general and pleaded guilty last year. The fraud was discovered when two of the flooded vehicles broke down on their new owners, shortly after leaving the dealer’s lot.

How widespread is the problem? After Hurricane Sandy, Kars4Kids, the nation's largest car-donation charity, estimated that more than 250,000 cars were damaged by the storm and that half of them would be resold. One insurance broker found more than 700,000 water-damaged cars after major storms between 2001 and 2008. When you consider that the average life of a U.S. vehicle is twelve years on the road, you could easily end up with a flood-damaged car if you’re not careful.

Typically, a flood-damaged car is reported to the insurance company and sold either for parts or as a salvaged vehicle. Cars that have suffered some major damage can be refurbished and sold with salvage titles, which can serve as a warning. Some salvaged vehicles can be a good buy, if the damage was professionally repaired after a major collision, but flood-damaged cars may not be worth the risk. If a car you’re considering comes with a salvage title, that’s a sign that you need to ask more questions about the nature of the damage and the amount of repairs that were made.

In some states, the title may actually indicate that the car was flood-damaged. A “flood title” means the car ended up in water deep enough to fill the engine compartment.

On the other hand, private owners and unscrupulous third parties may try to hide water damage. One common tactic is called “title washing,” where the vehicle documents are forged, recreated on blank forms or re-titled in states that have different standards.

Checklist for Flood-Damaged Vehicles

Here’s how to tell if you’re being offered a vehicle that’s been in for a swim:

  • First, look at the title. Beyond the status, check to see if the seller’s name matches that of the person selling it. If not, the seller isn’t the registered owner, and you need to ask more questions.
  • Look for rust and metal flaking in the engine compartment, under the dashboard, in the trunk and under the seats.
  • Check for discolored carpeting and upholstery, or upholstery and carpeting that don’t match or is completely new, and may have been replaced to hide damage.
  • Look for moisture or fogging inside headlamps, taillight assemblies, overhangs of the wheel wells and other enclosed spaces.
  • Watch out for dirt or mud in unusual places. Check along seat rails, in the glove compartment, trunk and other storage areas.
  • Check for brittle, damaged wires, rusty connectors and bad ABS or airbag warning lights on the dashboard.
  • Finally, use your nose. Mildewed materials give off a distinctive, musty odor, even when an unscrupulous seller tries to cover it up. If it stinks, then the car is a bad buy.

Flood-damaged cars can be difficult to spot, but knowing the signs can help you determine whether the used car you have your eye on is a clean ride or a soaked mess.


Photo ©iStock.com/shaunl

  Conversation   |   11 Comments

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Erin | 01.18.16 @ 18:01
I never considered that flooded cars might be resold. These are some great tips on what to look for before buying one that I will definitely keep in mind if we are ever in the market for a used vehicle. Thanks for the comprehensive list!
Sarah | 01.18.16 @ 18:02
These are great tips. Also, a mechanic is a good option as they'll be able to see more than we can since most of them are trained.
Heather | 01.18.16 @ 18:03
I remember our town had this problem after our flood of 2007. So any people were trying to get rid of them. Most financial institutions will not do a car loan on a salvaged title.
Nancy | 01.18.16 @ 18:04
I've heard of this problem before. You'd think that the seller would be required to declare the vehicle as having been in a flood. Great tips to look for.
Steffanie | 01.18.16 @ 18:05
Thanks for the great list. Will definitely keep these tips in mind when car shopping.
Christina | 01.18.16 @ 18:08
I never would have thought that flood-damaged vehicles would be resold like this. This is a good list of what to look for. I've also found CarFax to be really helpful when purchasing used vehicles, and flood-damage should be included on there as well.
Alec | 01.18.16 @ 18:11
It's so sad that people will resell flood damaged cars to unwitting buyers. The market should be heavily monitored after floods to prevent it! I believe I was the victim of a flood damaged car several years ago, as the whole underside of my car was rusted. Thankfully no issues arose from it. Now that I know what to look for, thanks to this list, I'll be on the lookout when I go to buy a car this year!
twokiss2u | 01.18.16 @ 18:16
We have alway snagged a car fax for any used car we have bought. Takes the hassle out of dealing with cars that have been in a flood.
Wanda Langley | 01.18.16 @ 18:17
I would have thought that these Car's had to be Sold as Scrap because of the damage that Flood Waters caused to them. I learned something today. Thanks for the Tips!
brittany.martinez530 | 01.18.16 @ 18:27
I am so glad that it doesn't flood very often where I live, so this really isn't an issue. But for those living in places that do get a lot of flooding, this has a lot of great info for.
Amanda | 01.18.16 @ 18:28
I always ask for a title search or a carfax before buying any vehicle, and I am choosy on what states I will buy from and never buy after any flooding. You never know if you can trust anyone anymore.
$commenter.renderDisplayableName() | 12.11.16 @ 02:38
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