Cars that have been flooded should to be crushed or otherwise destroyed because of the danger of lasting water damage even after the car is dry and appears good as new. The subject of flood damaged cars became prominent in late 2005 and early 2006 after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma flooded hundreds of thousands of cars.
Instead of disposing of these cars, dishonest people trying to make money from unsuspecting car buyers would dry them out, clean them up until they looked fine, and then sell them. Some estimate that half those cars are still on the road today. You should know that it isn’t illegal to sell a flood damaged car, as long as the title clearly indicates that this is a salvage vehicle. If the title does say that, however, it’s a good sign that you should look elsewhere.
You have to be careful of online car dealers and eBay sellers, who may try to minimize the importance of water damage. Sometimes these sellers will tell you that all the bad press about flooded cars comes from new car dealers who don’t want the competition, but that is not the case. Flood damaged cars can cost you plenty of money, time, and heartache.
It isn’t easy to tell if a car has been damaged by flood water, but there are several steps you can take to rule out flood damage.
1. Get the official history of any vehicle you consider buying. For $25 per report, or $30 for a month’s worth of reports, CarFax will give you information on the history of a car whose Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) you give it. A CarFax report will tell you how many times the car has been titled (more means a better chance it is a dud), whether it has been stolen, flooded, or has had its odometer rolled back. This information is well worth the investment.
2. Examine the car for signs of water damage. While dishonest salesmen will attempt to cover up flood damage, it is impossible to get rid of all the evidence. Moisture and dirt are the two things that you should look for. Look for moisture inside the headlights, the glove compartment, underneath the seats, and in the trunk. Rust is a bad sign. Water lines may be visible in the rear firewall areas, inside door pockets and interiors, and in the engine department. If a car has been parked overnight with the windows up, check if any of the windows are fogged on the inside. If so, there could be water under the seats or carpet.
3. Check for unusual smells. Is the car unusually musty for its age? Know what mildew smells like, and check the car for that smell. Smells of spilled oil or gas sometimes are present in flood damaged cars.
4. Does it appear as if standard features have been altered? Are the seats different from the ones usually in that model? Does the carpet look too new? Is the stereo an after-market model? That alone isn’t enough to prove flood damage. Plenty of people put new sound systems in cars. But it is something that should make you investigate further.
5. Check electrical systems on a test drive. If the lights and sound system act up, be suspicious.
6. Get a mechanic’s opinion. A trusted mechanic can be your best friend when you’re looking to buy a used car. A mechanic is more likely to have encountered flood damage, and knows where to look. Even if you spend a little money getting a mechanic to check out a car, consider it money well spent.
The wheels of justice are starting to turn in the case of flooded cars, but progress is very slow. The National Automobile Dealers Association is pressing for a national database of cars that have been reported as “totaled” by insurance companies. If this legislation passes, it would largely put a stop to the underhanded tactic of taking flooded vehicles across state lines to obtain “clean” titles.
Flood damaged cars not only come with the annoyance and allergens from mildew, but also with damages that endanger their drivers and everyone else on the road. Flood waters that get into onboard computers and render them useless make a flooded car not just inconvenient, but dangerous. No matter how good a deal it seems, it is always best to turn down a car with flood damage.