Beware of water-damaged cars flooding the market

Created date

November 2nd, 2017
Cars in a flood.

Cars in a flood.

Cities and towns across the South are still cleaning up from the devastating impact of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Residents are working hard to rebuild their homes and their communities. Their vehicles, however, will have to be replaced, not rebuilt.

Exposure to water can corrode a vehicle’s mechanical parts and cause the electrical system to short. Airbags and anti-lock brakes are compromised, and unhealthy mold overtakes the interior of the vehicle. 

Experts say hundreds of thousands of newly flood-damaged vehicles are out there. Many of those vehicles are headed to auto recyclers for dismantling. Others, however, are headed to used car lots.

Vehicles branded as “flood damaged” by their state will be put up for sale. This is perfectly legal as long as the buyer fully understands the vehicle’s status and history. 

‘Title wash’

It should come as no surprise, however, that there are plenty of deceitful scammers who know how to “title wash” a vehicle and virtually erase its flood-damaged status.

“I bought a car last year, and the seller never told us anything about it being a flood car,” says Charlene Geiger of Pennsylvania. “When we got home and ran a Carfax, there it was—a flood car from Hurricane Sandy. It showed that the seller bought it as a salvage car and the title was washed when he brought it to Pennsylvania. We lost $16,000 over all of it.”

If you are in the market for a used car, there are a few things you can do to ensure you don’t unknowingly buy a flood-damaged car:

1. Buy from a reputable dealer.

2. Give it the “smell test.” Does it smell moldy?  Conversely, does it smell too good? Is an artificial air freshener trying to cover up a foul smell?

3. Check the padding under the carpet. The carpet itself might be dry, but the foam or jute padding underneath can retain moisture for years.

4. Look under the hood for rust or any signs of sand or silt.

5. Check the dipstick. If the vehicle’s oil came in contact with water, the dipstick residue will look murky, like a melted chocolate milkshake. 

6. Check the lights and instrument panels. Is there any condensation? 

7. Now look closely at the lights. Do you see any small drill holes made to drain water from the fixture?  

8. Have a trusted mechanic give the vehicle the once over. Even if you have to pay someone, the money will be well spent if it saves you from buying a water-damaged vehicle.

“Our data shows there’s still much work to be done in helping consumers avoid buying flood-damaged cars,” says Dick Raines, president of Carfax. “They can, and do, show up all over the country, whether it be a few miles or hundreds of miles from where the flooding occurred. With two devastating storms already this year, it’s vital for used car buyers everywhere to protect themselves from flooded cars that may wind up for sale. Start with a thorough test drive, a vehicle history report, and a mechanic’s inspection before buying any used car.”

In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Carfax is letting consumers check vehicles for flood damage free of charge at