Used car buyers beware: Don’t get hosed by flood-damaged cars


flood damaged cars partially submerged on a street

Used car buyer beware! That shiny used car with low mileage might look like a good deal, but take care that you aren’t buying a flood damaged car. It’s estimated that some half million vehicles were flooded in Texas and Louisiana during Hurricane Harvey, and there are sure to be many more after Irma. Resellers can be pretty good at the cosmetics so you could be deceived – engine and electrical problems may not be readily apparent.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) defines a flooded vehicle as one that has been completely or partially submerged in water to the extent that its body, engine, transmission or other mechanical component parts have been damaged.

According to Ronny Pucino, a body shop owner in Rhode Island, there are three main elements in a car that are affected by flooding: the upholstery, the engine and the electronics. The extent of any damage depends largely on the level of water that the car experienced. Cars that have had wheel-top level damage may be able to be salvaged if the owner acted quickly to address the damage. But when water reaches as high as the dashboard, it is more likely that the engine and the electronics have been compromised and the car will be unsalvageable.

Being alert for flood-damaged cars should be of concern to all used car buyers, regardless of geography. Often, damaged cars are professionally refurbished and shipped to other parts of the country to be sold. Experts say that flood-damaged cars end up going to places where consumers won’t be likely to be on alert. Even when cars “clean up nice,” they may well have electrical or engine damage. Flood-damaged vehicles often surface in auctions and “for sale by owner” scenarios.

Edmunds.com offers good tips on how to avoid buying a flood damaged car. They present 6 tell-tale tips, which we’ve summarized, but click on the article for more detail.

1. Get a vehicle history report.
2. Be alert to unusual odors.
3. Look for discolored carpeting.
4. Examine the exterior for water buildup.
5. Inspect the undercarriage.
6. Be suspicious of dirt buildup in unusual areas.

The NICB has released this list of Flood Vehicle Fraud Prevention Tips:

  • Select a reputable car dealer.
  • Inspect the vehicle for water stains, mildew, sand or silt under the carpets, floor mats, headliner cloth and behind the dashboard.
  • Check for recently shampooed carpet.
  • Inspect the interior upholstery and door panels for fading.
  • Check for rust on screws in the console or areas where water normally doesn’t reach.
  • Check for mud or grit in the spare tire compartment, alternator crevices, behind wiring harnesses, around the small recesses of starter motors, power steering pumps and relays.
  • Check inside the seatbelt retractors by pulling the seatbelt all the way out and inspect for moisture, mildew or grime.
  • Check door speakers as they will often be damaged due to flooding.
  • Have a certified mechanic inspect the vehicle prior to purchasing it.
  • Ask about the vehicle’s history. Ask whether it was in any accidents or floods.
  • Inspect the title and ownership papers for any potential or questionable salvage fraud.
  • Conduct a title search of the vehicle.
  • Look under the hood for signs of oxidation. Pull back rubber boots around electrical and mechanical connections for these indicators: Ferrous materials will show signs of rust, Copper will show a green patina.
  • Aluminum and alloys will have a white powder and pitting.
  • Trust your instincts: If you don’t like the answers or the deal sounds too good to be true, walk away!

CARFAX offers more tips for detecting and avoiding flood-damaged cars. They also offer vehicle history reports for a fee, which could be a worthwhile investment if you find a car you’re thinking of purchasing.

One other consumer service is the NICB’s VINcheck, a free service provided to the public to assist in determining if a vehicle has been reported as stolen, but not recovered, or has been reported as a salvage vehicle by cooperating NICB members. You must have the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to perform a search, and a maximum of five VINCheck searches can be conducted within a 24 hour period.

DMV.org talks more about VIN checks, offering a diagram showing where you can typically find a car’s VIN. They note that although there are many free VIN services, if you want a detailed report, you may have to pay a fee. We think you should also invest the cost for having a mechanic check over a used car before you buy it. Both steps could be a worthwhile investment to save you from later headaches. A good VIN check can tell you these things about a vehicle:

  • Past ownership.
  • Any liens held on the vehicle.
  • Vehicle maintenance.
  • Title history blemishes.
  • Faulty odometer settings.
  • Flood damage.
  • Accident history.
  • Car title check.
  • Whether a vehicle was determined to be a lemon.
  • Airbag deployments.