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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

En español

Climate change is bringing stronger and more frequent storms and flooding. The more places water rises, the more vehicles are submerged. Those water-logged vehicles don’t just disappear when they get hauled away. 

As demand for used cars remains high, flood cars are more likely to flow back into the mainstream marketplace nationwide. Auto buyers should be aware and take steps to avoid purchasing them.

“As we’ve seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida as well as other storms, flooding can do some significant damage to vehicles,” says Tully Lehman, public affairs manager for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). “Cars today, with all the sensors and electronics that help ‘make them go,’ are susceptible to flooding. 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 for 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 bring with it 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.”


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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 knowing seller doesn’t volunteer the information.  

Insurance companies will send flood cars to a junkyard, recycle 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, 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 inspect 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 (containing iron) materials 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, and whether it has been 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.
  • Have a certified mechanic inspect the vehicle prior to purchasing 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.

 

If someone makes repairs and has the automobile inspected, it may legally return to the road. However, the vehicle will have a Salvage, Rebuilt, Flood or similar label branded on the title. That label is intended to follow the car so that buyers will be alerted it has been involved in an incident.  

It gets more complicated when flood damage isn’t covered under a basic auto insurance policy or the damage isn’t enough to total out the car. The burden is now on the owner to eventually 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 across the country.

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

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 used for 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.  

The NCIB’s free VINCheck tool allows consumers to enter the VIN code and will identify whether a car is considered stolen or has a salvage/flood branding on the title. There are also more comprehensive automobile histories 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 down the number and do research at home. No legitimate seller should object to you knowing the VIN, and it’s essential the information matches the car you’re looking at.

“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 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 the car was registered and for how long. Even if a vehicle escapes a branded title, it cannot escape its timeline. 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 term, and the previous owner had it in the time and place of a hurricane or another water 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 that has clean information and clone the VIN to look like the good car.

So make sure to get the vehicle checked out by a mechanic before the purchase. He/she 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.


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