How to Avoid Getting Soaked by a Flood-Damaged Vehicle

A report suggests Hurricane Harvey's rains could drown a half-million cars. Learn the telltale signs that can help you avoid buying a soggy used car.

Hurricane Harvey’s rains could end up destroying 500,000 cars, according to an analysis by Cox Automotive. That’s double the number of car casualties associated with Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

If Harvey does indeed drown a half-million vehicles, it seems likely that countless more cars will suffer flooding damage ranging from mild to severe. Some of these autos inevitably will end up on the open market.

So, buyer beware: The last thing you want is to end up with a water-logged ride.

Fortunately, learning the signs of flood damage — some are obvious and some are not at all — can help you avoid being suckered into buying a vehicle that appears fine, but is actually at the end of the road. A flood-damaged car may look decent on the outside but could be rusting from the inside, setting a buyer up for major costly repairs.

In a warning to consumers after heavy flooding in 2015, the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which works with law enforcement agencies, insurance and car rental companies to assess damage, issued this word of warning in a press release:

“Unfortunately, natural disasters bring out dishonest salvage dealers who don’t tell you that the vehicles they’re selling are heavily water-damaged,” said NICB President and CEO Joe Wehrle.

“Consumers need to know that these vehicles may appear advertised for sale without any indication that they were affected by the flooding. As always, buyers should be careful when considering a used vehicle purchase in the weeks and months following a disaster…”

How to spot a flood-damaged vehicle

To avoid purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle, the first thing you should do is have it examined by a trusted mechanic. For tips on that, check out “13 Steps to Finding an Honest and Qualified Auto Mechanic.”

The next step is to order a vehicle identification number (VIN) check, according to DMV.org, a privately owned website not affiliated with any government entity.

Flood-damaged vehicles are supposed to be reported. If the vehicle you want is deemed flood-damaged, it should appear when you order a vehicle history report, also known as a VIN check or VIN report.

Another precaution is to check the status of the title, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

A “salvage title” means the car was declared a total loss by an insurance company because of a serious accident or some other problems. A “flood title” means the car has damage from sitting in water deep enough to fill the engine compartment. The title status is part of a vehicle history report.

There also are visible warning signs that might indicate the vehicle has been in a flood, says DMV.org. They include:

  • Upholstery in a used vehicle that doesn’t match the carpeting.
  • Rust in places like door hinges and trunk latches.
  • Rust under the gas and brake pedals.
  • Silt or mud under the seats or in the glove compartment.
  • Wet floor carpeting.
  • A musty or moldy smell inside the vehicle, or the smell of cleaning agents and car fresheners trying to mask the mold.
  • Brittle wires underneath the dashboard, which could mean they have been wet and then dried out. Reach down there to make sure the wires are pliable.
  • Malfunctioning electronics or accessories. Turn on the ignition and make sure all dashboard warning and accessories work properly. Test the air conditioning, heater, windshield wipers, radio and turn signals several times.
  • VIN inconsistencies. Make sure the VIN on the dashboard matches the VIN on the door jamb.

Finally, if you see something fishy, say something.

“If a dealer fraudulently tries to sell you a flood-damaged car, they’re breaking the law: Report them,” says Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson.

If you suspect a dealer is knowingly selling a storm-damaged car or a salvaged vehicle as a good-condition used car, contact your auto insurance company, or local law enforcement agency. Or, call the NICB at 800-TEL-NICB (800-835-6422). You’ll help someone else avoid a rip-off.

Do you have more tips for avoiding purchasing a water-damaged clunker? Share them below or on our Facebook page.

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