Q. How can I avoid buying a car that has been flood-damaged?
A. It can be tough, because vehicles damaged by hurricanes or floods—an estimated half-million of them from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina alone—may still be drivable.
The typical scenario: If a car has been water-soaked for two days or longer, the insurer pays off the owner and the vehicle is hauled to a salvage yard. But “curbstoners” buy them at auction, clean them up and sell them privately—often in another state where it’s easier to obtain titles without disclosing the water damage.
In the long term, these vehicles are subject to a wide variety of problems: Rust attacks the body and engine, wires dry and crack, and brakes and electrical systems fail.
In addition to inspection by a trusted mechanic, here are some do-it-yourself steps to prevent getting soaked:
• Start with VINCheck, a free service by the National Insurance Crime Bureau that could reveal if the vehicle is in its flood database or was issued a salvage title. For greater detail, check the Vehicle Identification Number at CARFAX or AutoCheck.
• Strong odors are a red flag. Musty smells indicate mildew buildup that couldn’t be cleaned, whereas overpowering air fresheners suggest the seller may be hiding something.
• Examine engine crevices, the glove compartment, door panels and the spare tire well for water lines or signs of mud, silt or rust. Also look under the seats for those indicators, as well as for evidence that seat-mounting screws were removed to help dry carpets. Be suspicious of carpeting that looks too new, is discolored or has water stains.
• Look for water lines or fogging inside headlights and taillights. Check dashboard gauges for condensation and accuracy.
• Repeatedly test electrical equipment—wipers, turn signals, heater and air conditioner, and power windows and locks. Under the hood, wires should bend easily; if they are too stiff, they will likely crack.
• In later-model vehicles, beware of premature flaking or rust on the undercarriage. Also check to see if drain plugs beneath the car and under the doors have been removed recently. If the car has been flooded, the plugs would have been taken out to drain the water.
Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.