Avoid getting soaked by buying a vehicle that is dangerous to drive.
Thousands of cars are flooded each year, and repaired and resold instead of going to the junkyard.
Carfax estimates nearly 400,000 flooded cars were back on the road in 2022 after being damaged in historic flooding in St. Louis, eastern Kentucky, southeast Illinois and Dallas. Plus, Yellowstone National Park and Death Valley National Park also experienced devastating flooding.
Some of the vehicles submerged in recent flooding in New York and Vermont ands record-setting rain and mudslides in California will be reaching the market as bargain-priced used cars, most likely in states far from where they were damaged. .
Here’s what to look for and avoid:
Electronics, including computer chips, hate water
Since modern vehicles are heavy on electronics, there are common problems with flooded cars.
Water damage can short-circuit brakes, airbags, turn signals, headlights, speedometer, entertainment/navigation system, even the heating/cooling system.
Perhaps most dangerous of all, a flood-damaged engine, especially if it’s been soaked in salt water, can cut out at any time without warning, causing an accident.
Why risk it? Be smart and use your senses to recognize a flood-damaged vehicle and avoid buying a water damaged car or truck or a salvage car.
Use Your Senses to Recognize a Flood-Damaged Vehicle
Look for water stains outside and inside.
Outside, that would be a water line on the exterior paint, or on the inside of headlights and tail lights.
Inside, look for signs of rust on the seat rails and examine upholstery and carpeting.
If upholstery does not match the interior or doesn’t fit tightly, it may have been replaced.
Check the seat-mounting screws for evidence they have been removed, since removing the seats is only way to remove carpeting to either dry out or replace.
Look under the carpets for signs of dampness or mud. You’ve had enough muddy shoes in your family car to know what is normal and what is not.
Check that the dashboard finish matches the door panels. If it doesn’t find out why.
Check the engine oil. If water has gotten in there, you’ll see an unusual and telltale milky appearance.
Check the seat belts. If there’s a grinding noise as you pull to attach, it could be from dried mud, dirt or sand clogging the mechanism.
Check the wires under the dashboard by flexing them. Wet wires become brittle when they dry, so listen for a cracking noise.
A musty smell is a dead giveaway.
But the seller may have covered that up with air fresheners, so a strong perfume smell, including from cleaning solutions, is another giveaway.
Either way, turn on the air vents to smell what comes out of the vehicle’s ventilation system.
Take a Test Drive
Use all your senses to look for telltale signs of damage.
Does the engine turn over quickly and easily, or is it cranky?
Does the steering wheel turn smoothly, or does it “stick”, indicating mud or silt in the steering column?
Ditto for the windshield wipers and power window controls. They should be smooth, not sticky.
If the vehicle has an on-board navigation system, check that it’s working properly. Ditto heat and cooling controls.
Does the airbag light go on?
What about the radio? If it sounds muddy, maybe it was.
These are all warning signs the car was submerged long enough to do damage.
Never buy a car at any time for any reason without a test drive. Period.
Check the Title, VIN and Vehicle History Report
Be especially wary of a vehicle whose title has been “lost”. It’s called “title washing”.
Unscrupulous sellers may be hiding the fact that the car was declared a total loss by the insurance company, and perhaps sold as salvage to recoup some of that loss.
These vehicles usually are moved far from the flooded area to further hide their history, so a vehicle damaged in New York’s Hudson Valley, St. Louis, New Orleans or Orlando could wind up in Idaho or Oklahoma.
You can look up a vehicle’s title history, including salvage history, for free, via the seven-digit vehicle identification number, or VIN.
Check the National Insurance Crime Bureau VINCheck or the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, a joint effort of the US Dept of Justice and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers.
Many used car dealers give a free vehicle history report from services such as CarFax, a good sign the dealer and the vehicle have nothing to hide.
If the seller doesn’t offer one, get it yourself. It’s more than worth the cost, usually around $30, and be sure to ask that the free flood report is included.
Check the VIN report carefully to be sure the vehicle color, upholstery and other features match the vehicle you are considering to buy.
It is a felony to tamper with a VIN, but that does not stop the most unscrupulous sellers.
Get an Independent Inspection
You have legal protections, including the so-called federal Lemon Law (the official name is the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act), which provides compensation for buying defective vehicles, including motorcycles and RVs.
But getting your money back can be time consuming and even expensive if you have to hire an attorney, so it’s best to avoid a flood-soaked lemon in the first place.
It’s up to you to do your own due diligence, and the best way is to have your vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic you trust before you sign on the dotted line.
If the seller refuses, walk away. Fast.
Additional Problems With a Flooded Vehicle
Low resale value
Even if you plan to drive your used car for a few years and then trade it in or sell it, you’ll find a flood-damaged car has a low market value bordering on worthless.
Since it is costly to restore a vehicle that has sustained water damage, your recourse – when you decide to get rid of it – is that you may be limited to selling the wreck for salvage – which probably should have been done to the flood-damaged vehicle in the first place.
It may cost more to insure a vehicle that has flood damage, or your car insurance company may be unwilling to insure it at all.
If you can not get insurance, you should not buy the vehicle or drive it. Period. Never drive a vehicle without insurance.
Find more tips about flooded vehicles in this recent article in Consumer Reports
ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter wrote this article for A Girl’s Guide to Cars after Hurricane Katrina. It has been revised, updated and republished periodically after a significant weather event.
Copyright (C) Evelyn Kanter
ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter is a journalist with 25+ years of experience as a newspaper and magazine writer, radio & TV news producer & reporter, and author of guidebooks and smartphone apps – all focusing on travel, automotive, the environment and your rights as a consumer.
ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter currently serves as President of the International Motor Press Assn. (IMPA), a former Board Member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and a current member of the North American Travel Journalists Assn. (NATJA) and the North American Snowsports Journalists Assn. (NASJA).
Contact me at email@example.com.