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How to Avoid Buying a Vehicle That Has Been Through a Flood

Used cars are in high demand, but stay away from those that have been under water

flooded car on a street
Neil Gavin/Getty Images

Major weather events like Hurricane Ian leave a second storm in their wake: They create a deluge of flood cars. These are vehicles that have been submerged and waterlogged, and while they should be taken off the road, they sometimes wind up back on the market. 

These damaged vehicles don’t just disappear when they get hauled away after a storm. In fact, it doesn’t take long for some of them to reappear at dealerships and in private sales across the country.  

The problem may be heightened now, because the used car market has its own storm brewing. The current high demand for pre-owned vehicles means that flood cars are more likely to end up back in the mainstream marketplace nationwide. Shoppers are paying higher prices, so what seems to be a bargain can be particularly attractive. However, problems remain long after the water is all gone, and auto buyers should be aware and take steps to avoid purchasing these cars.

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“Cars today, with all the sensors and electronics that help ‘make them go,’ are susceptible to flooding,” says Tully Lehman, former public affairs manager for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). “Though manufacturers do a great job at waterproofing connectors and such, oftentimes these systems will not hold up to the rigors of being submerged in water for a lengthy period of time."

Flood damage can be difficult to spot. Water can seep into unseen areas of a vehicle, and identifying a repaired flood car is not necessarily easy. After all, a thorough cleaning is just a good policy when selling any vehicle. 

Generally, a flood car should not be on your shopping list. Even if a seller is up-front about the damage, shows plenty of proof of repairs and offers a deep discount, such a car is likely to mean future problems — both mechanical and otherwise.

“Persons with asthma and mold allergy might find that the asthma worsens when exposed to mold in a flood-damaged car,” says James Li, M.D., an allergist for the Mayo Clinic. “This can be more of a problem because mold concentrations may rise in a closed and confined space.”

Flood cars’ route back to the road

It is not illegal to sell a flooded vehicle. It is illegal if a dealership does not disclose it, and it’s just plain dishonest if a seller knows about it but doesn’t volunteer the information.

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Insurance companies will send flood cars to a junkyard, recycling center or other end-of-the-road destination. These sites are required to report the vehicle identification number (VIN) to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). Destinations like salvage auctions still report to the NMVTIS, but they do not destroy the vehicle. 

Tips for Spotting a Flood-Damaged Vehicle

The National Insurance Crime Bureau suggests using these strategies to identify red flags when buying a used car. 

  • Inspect the vehicle thoroughly. Look for water stains, mildew, sand or silt under the carpets, floor mats and headliner cloth and behind the dashboard.
  • Check for recently shampooed carpets.
  • Inspect the interior upholstery and door panels for fading.
  • Check for rust on screws in the console or areas where water normally wouldn’t reach.
  • Check for mud or grit in the spare tire compartment, alternator crevices, behind wiring harnesses and 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 inspecting it for moisture, mildew or grime.
  • Check door speakers, which are frequently damaged by flooding.
  • Look under the hood for signs of oxidation. Pull back the rubber “boots” around electrical and mechanical connections for these indicators. Ferrous materials (containing iron) will show signs of rust; copper will show a green patina; aluminum and alloys will have a white powder and pitting.
  • Ask about the vehicle’s history, including whether it has been in any accidents or floods.
  • Inspect the title and ownership papers for signs of any potential or questionable salvage fraud.
  • Conduct a title search of the vehicle.
  • Have a certified mechanic inspect the vehicle before you buy it.
  • Trust your instincts. If you don’t like the answers you’re hearing or if the deal sounds too good to be true, walk away.

It can take months or years for these vehicles to reappear on the market, says Tony Quarno, owner of Quarno’s Auto Salvage and president of the Florida Auto Dismantlers and Recyclers Association. “Some of these vehicles will see salvage yards right away,” he says. “Those would be the vehicles that are uninsured, underinsured or previously inoperable vehicles. Private owners and some car lots will most likely liquidate these vehicles immediately in order to finance reconstruction, to renew inventory or to just make room during recovery.” 

If someone does makes repairs and has the automobile inspected, it can legally return to the road. However, the vehicle title will include a “salvage,” “rebuilt,” “flood” or similar label. That label is intended to follow the car so potential buyers will be alerted that it has been involved in an incident.

It gets more complicated when flood damage isn’t covered under a basic auto insurance policy or if the damage isn’t enough to total out the car. The burden is now on the owner to salvage the vehicle. After an incident like a flood, many people are just looking to get the most money for recovery. Someone disreputable may snap up a flood car before something negative is branded on the title, and then resell it anywhere in the country.

That’s why it’s important for buyers to double-check the paperwork and search for rust, water stains, mud and grit in hidden interior spots.

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How to spot red flags

Start by scrutinizing a used car’s permanent record using the VIN. This 17-digit code is unique to every manufacturer’s vehicle sold in the United States for the last 40 years and is on the title of every licensed consumer vehicle on the road. The VIN can usually be found on a tag viewed through the base of the windshield.

Using the NICB’s free VINCheck tool, consumers can enter the VIN code, which will identify whether a car is considered stolen or has a salvage/flood branding on the title. There are also more comprehensive automobile histories available from services that charge a fee. Both the VINCheck site and the government’s NMVTIS site provide reputable links. 

If you don’t feel comfortable checking the VIN in front of the owner/seller, write the number down and do your research at home. No legitimate seller should object to you knowing the VIN, and it’s essential that the information matches the car you’re looking at.

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“If you see a car you’d like to purchase, and you are told it’s a 2006 Honda Accord in blue, but when you look up the VIN it says it’s a 2004 or that its color is black, you will know better what the seller is selling,” says the NICB’s Lehman. “It could be an honest mistake by the seller, or perhaps not. In this case, best to walk away.”

A comprehensive VIN check not only provides a record of what the car should be, but also where it was registered and for how long. Even if a vehicle escapes a branded title, it cannot escape its time line. Look to see if the car is on an out-of-state title in another person’s name. Maybe the current owner has had the vehicle for a short time, and the previous owner had it at the time and place of a hurricane or other flooding event. That’s a big red flag of a relocated flood car.

The VIN provides a trustworthy base, but it’s not infallible. Individual owners may have done their own repairs and not reported the flood to the local DMV. Or a skilled deceit artist may locate a similar car with clean information and clone the VIN to look like the good car. 

So before you buy the vehicle, make sure to get it checked out by a mechanic. They will be knowledgeable about the signs of flooding and where to hunt for telltale damage. Mechanics recognize the signs of corrosion on everything from screws to electrical connectors, and they know where water should never be.

Still, Quarno estimates, only a small percentage of the vehicles damaged in a hurricane like Ian are likely to get back on the consumer market. That’s because there is an entire industry waiting to take them. Though interior and electronic components are typically discarded because of water damage, other parts — body parts, glass, suspension, tires, trim and plastics — can all be recycled, he says. 

“Furthermore, these vehicles still have considerable value in the way of recyclable metals: steel, aluminum, copper, lead and even semiprecious metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium,” he adds.

It’s good news to know that the large majority of flood cars have plenty of legitimate business interest and value. But it doesn’t erase the need to be vigilant about the remaining vehicles that could be part of a pre-owned deal anywhere across the country.