Here are Some Expert Car Buying Tips on Avoiding Flood-Damaged Vehicles

With hurricane season upon us, used car shoppers need to be extra cautious.

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Last hurricane season, Harvey and Irma damaged more than a million vehicles, and September's Florence could flood many thousands more. As a result, used car shoppers need to watch for unscrupulous salespeople or independent sellers who may lie about flood damage.

According to CarFax, 325,510 flooded vehicles were put back in use in 2017, including 12,166 in Philadelphia, 10,037 in Chicago and 6,995 in Detroit—large cities not traditionally known for excessive flooding. So, what gives?

"People with bad intentions buy cars that have been totaled by floods and move them to other parts of the country," Richard Reina, the product training director for aftermarket auto retailer CARiD, explained. This process, meant to remove a salvage designation from a car's documentation, is called title washing. There's a good description of the scam on the Fraud Guides site.

Flood damage can corrode sheet metal and frames, warp brake rotors, short circuit the electrical systems affecting steering, airbags and lights, and allow dangerous mold and bacteria to grow in a vehicle. These problems are not always immediately apparent and can take weeks or even months to become obvious. 

You can minimize your chances of buying a flood-damaged vehicle by following some simple(ish) steps. It's a topic The Drive's Justin Hughes has covered before, but with Hurricane Florence's wide devastation on the East Coast, we thought it prudent to revisit. 

  • Get a vehicle history report, such as AutoCheck or CarFax. These will usually tell you if a car or truck has been damaged by floodwaters, even if it crosses state lines. "A reputable seller should have a report printed out and ready for when you check out the car," Reina noted. If you can't get a vehicle history report, doing a free Google search of the VIN can also turn up flood damage history, but it's not as accurate.
  • Check every electrical system you can. While triggering an airbag deployment or automatic emergency braking is a bit excessive, there are still plenty of electrical systems you can test, including power windows and door locks, interior and exterior lights, and infotainment screens. Are they all working as they should? If not, you should find out why.
  • Check for rust. Flood damage can occur even if a vehicle isn't completely submerged. So, if you're looking in the engine bay and notice a line under which the car or truck is visibly rustier, that might be the high water mark from a flood. Reina also suggested looking at the rods that connect to fuel and brake pedals. These don't rust under normal circumstances, so if they appear corroded, that could indicate flood damage.
  • Do you know how to pop off an inside door panel? If so, you can check for muck buildup or a moldy smell inside the door. An unscrupulous seller might replace the carpeting or have a damaged car's seats thoroughly cleaned, but they're less likely to address the insides of doors, Reina said. 
  • Finally, use common sense. The Latin phrase caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) is always good to keep in mind. "If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is," Reina said. 

If you do find a flooded car being misrepresented, report it to your insurance company, local law enforcement, or the National Insurance Crime Bureau at (800) 835-6422.