How Do You Identify a Flood-Damaged Car?

by Michael Franco
A pickup truck is overtaken by flood waters, pickup truck, truck, pickup, flood, floodwaters, flood waters, storm, storm damage, damage, disaster, natural disaster

We've all seen the images of cars driving — or floating — through rivers of water after a hurricane. While the rain can certainly lead to these high levels of water, the real damage comes from the storm surge when thousands of gallons of seawater wash ashore and soak everything in their path. When a car is subject to this kind of drenching, it is very unlikely that the vehicle will ever again be roadworthy, especially if the car wound up sitting in floodwaters for longer than a few hours. Still, many flood-damaged vehicles find their way to the open market, where unscrupulous vendors use a variety of tricks to try to hide the damage.

According to car-research tool CARFAX, in 2022, prior to Hurricane Ian, there were already 400,000 water-damaged cars on the road. Ian's wrath potentially increased that number by over 350,000 vehicles. Based on those numbers, there’s a good chance the average consumer may come into contact with one of these vehicles.

Fortunately, there’s a range of tools and strategies you can use to try to outwit shady salespeople and ensure that any used car you purchase has not been damaged by floodwater.

Go Online

These days, consumers are buying cars online more than ever, which means they don't get to inspect the vehicles prior to pick-up or delivery. While you can be sure that reputable services won't sell you a flood-damaged lemon, other dealers don't hold to the same standards. So before you agree to buy a car sight unseen, it's a good idea to hop online and do a little investigating using the car's vehicle identification number (VIN), which any seller can provide you prior to purchase. In fact, even if you physically inspect the car and it looks good to you (more on that in a minute), you should still use these online services to track the car's history using its VIN:

  • CARFAX: This aforementioned service provides detailed records on a car for a fee, but they also offer a free flood-check tool. If you're serious about a purchase, it pays to get the full records. If you're only in the research phase, the free tool is a great way to see if the car was reported as having had flood damage.
  • National Insurance Crime Bureau: This organization has a free VINCheck tool that will also let you know if a car was in a flood based on insurance records, law enforcement records and information from auto auction companies.
  • AutoCheck: Like CARFAX, this service provides complete vehicle history reports for a fee but also offers a free Flood Risk Check service.

Reports from each of these services can vary a bit, so it's smart to at least run the VIN of your potential car through all three of the free options before researching further. There are other VIN-checking services available as well, so you might want to shop around to see which one suits your budget and needs best. The U.S. Department of Justice maintains a database showing which sites it approves for this kind of research.

Salvage Situations

As you go through your online research, you may find that a car you're interested in purchasing might have been declared a total loss and issued a salvage title. Total loss means that the insurance company decided that the damage to the vehicle was so severe that it's actually cheaper for them to pay the owner their coverage proceeds than to fix it. If that's the case, the car will have a new salvage title issued. For the most part, such cars are sold to salvage yards for parts, but they can also be sold on the open market.

If you do decide to buy a car with a salvage title, be extra vigilant in your research. Realize that salvaged cars are harder — and sometimes impossible — to insure. Salvaged cars will be much harder to sell in the future.

Use Your Eyes (And Your Nose)

After doing your online sleuthing, you'll want to do a thorough physical inspection of the car. If you are savvy when it comes to motor vehicles, you can do this yourself, but it's likely best to take the car to a mechanic or bring one with you to do a thorough inspection. If a seller won't let you take the car to a mechanic, it might mean they are trying to hide something, in which case, it might be best to walk away from the deal.

When inspecting the car, look for rust in odd places, like any screws in the dashboard or along the door panels. Also, if you can, lift up interior floor upholstery and look for rust or wet spots. Likewise, look at the engine and take a peek under the car. In both areas, check for rust that seems excessive, especially considering the vehicle's age.

You should also inspect the inside of the glove compartment and the interior of any light covers throughout the car for sand, mud or debris. Most dealers trying to pass off a flood-damaged car will have done a thorough cleaning, but you never know what areas they might have missed. Also, if the car has fogged headlights or taillights, this could be a warning sign.

Finally, follow your nose — and your instincts. If the car smells moldy or damp, there's really no need to consider it any further. You'll also want to run the car's heating and AC systems to see if any funky odors come out of the vents. Also, if the car has a very strong odor from an air-freshening product, be aware that the seller might be using a trick to cover up musty smells.

Aftermarket

Even if you take all of these precautions, you may still wind up getting duped by a crafty dealer into buying a car that was in a flood. If you find out after you purchase the car that this is the case, you'll want to file a report with your state's attorney general or department of justice. They will help you figure out how to get restitution from the seller if it's possible.

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