Every year, thousands of flood-damaged cars are put on the market after major weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes and other storms. These vehicles can put their drivers and passengers at risk due to their potentially unreliable and unsafe nature.
According to experts, any vehicle that has been submerged to its floor or higher is considered a totaled vehicle for insurance purposes. Being submerged or partially submerged damages a range of vehicle systems, including the engine, transmission and crucial electronic components.
These totaled vehicles often go through chop shops to make them appear to be in normal working condition and from there they can end up on used car lots hundreds of miles from where they were original damaged and or declared totaled.
As a car buyer, here are some tips you can use to protect yourself from flood-damaged cars.
Tip 1: Check the VIN
When looking at a used car, you should always check the VIN (vehicle identification number) and make sure that it matches with every instance of the VIN on the car and its paperwork. VIN-checking services are a great way to alert you to vehicles with flood titles or salvage titles.
However, sometimes vehicles are reconditioned and then pass inspection in another state. When that happens, it might be retitled, and the new VIN won't match instances of the VIN located around the vehicle.
The two most common places to find the VIN are on the dashboard on the driver's side in the corner where it meets the windshield, and also on the driver's side doorjamb (look for a 17-character string of numbers and letters). It might also be on the engine and under the hood. Any sign of VIN tampering should be looked at with suspicion.
Tip 2: Inspect the Interior
One of the most obvious signs of a vehicle that has been submerged in water is a musty odor or signs of mildew on the interior. Investigate the interior thoroughly of any used car that you plan to purchase. Pull up floor mats and inspect the flooring for signs of mold, mildew or staining. Open the glove compartment and look for traces of mud or silt. Often you can find dirt buildup in odd places on flood-damaged cars. You might find it under the dashboard, in the seat tracks or beneath the door liner.
Other places to look include the trunk and spare tire (if there is one). A good rule of thumb is to inspect places that are hard to get to and hard to clean. Sometimes you might encounter suspicious signs of hidden damage, such as new fabric, excessive air fresheners and recently shampooed carpeting (though that last one could also be a sign of the seller simply cleaning the vehicle).
If the outside of the vehicle is a little rough, but the inside seems a little too polished, it might be a sign that water damage is being hidden. Brand new carpeting and mats in an older vehicle can be a red flag.
Tip 3: Look at the Lights
It's fairly difficult to get rid of a key sign of water damage: the lights. On flood-damaged cars, you might see beads of moisture and fog behind the lenses. There might even be a visible waterline. So be sure to inspect all the lights on the vehicle closely.
Tip 4: Check the Wiring
Check items such as radios, interior lights, dashboard lights, blinkers, warning lights, power windows, power locks, power lift gates and anything else you see that is operated electronically. If any of these aren't working properly, investigate the wiring by looking for rusted parts, water residue or any unusual corrosion. You can also test the electronics of the vehicle to make sure that there aren't any odd shorts or things that inexplicably don't work.
Tip 5: Look for Rust
Rust and corrosion are not normal in newer vehicles, or in vehicles from warm climates that don't snow. Get underneath the vehicle and check areas around the fuel tank, brake lines and shock towers. Check the wheel wells, in between the bumper corners and the body and the roof rails. Inside, you can check for signs of rust beneath the seats, under the dashboard and instrument panel and other areas that would not normally be exposed to water. Look at exposed screws and other unpainted metal. Bare metal will almost always show light surface rust in flood-damaged cars.
Tip 6: Have a Trusted Mechanic Inspect the Vehicle
While it's true that you could check for many of these issues yourself, a trusted mechanic can do an even better job of looking for problems. Any dealership or seller with nothing to hide won't object to a mechanic inspection.
Are You Selling a Vehicle in a Flood Zone?
If you're selling your vehicle and you live in a flood zone, be prepared for questions about its condition and history. You can allay buyer fears by having your vehicle inspected by a mechanic and issued a clean bill of health.
National Motor Vehicle Title Information System
Another useful tool for those shopping for used cars is the NMVTIS, a database aimed at combatting title washing. Title washing is when totaled or stolen cars are retitled in other states that have different laws or regulations about title reporting. Another source of concern is when a car owner doesn't have comprehensive insurance coverage and the vehicle gets damaged by flooding, or when the repair bill doesn't exceed the amount to be considered salvage. This means that a salvaged title might not be issued. Only a few states have flood titles, which is when all flood damage history must be recorded.
When an insurance company declares a damaged vehicle a total loss, a salvage title is issued. The title is marked or branded either with a word, letter or number code. Reselling these cars is usually legal as long as the damage is completely disclosed. Salvage title vehicles can't be registered again until the required repairs are made and the vehicle is inspected by official parties. The title is then declared as rebuilt and can be registered for resale or use. Be suspicious of any vehicles being sold without a title and try to avoid these at all costs.