How to Avoid Buying a Flood Damaged Car

  • by: Patrick Peterson
  • May 29, 2020

Periodic storms wreak havoc on coastal cities and riverside towns alike, damaging roads and buildings and of course, vehicles. The situation has become more serious in recent years as major cities like New Orleans, Louisiana, New York City, Houston, Texas, Naples, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina have been under water for days. But it can be difficult to tell if a car has been in a flood. A VIN check is an important step but there’s more to know.

flood damaged car
The number of vehicles affected by these catastrophic events is in the hundreds of thousands. Experts say there were over 300,000 water damaged vehicles on the road before Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and Hurricane Irma slammed into Florida. Flood water, particularly seawater, can affect vehicles in unpredictable ways, including by corroding electrical systems, destroying lubricants, and rusting components. Many times a flood-damaged vehicle will continue to work normally for a period before the water damage causes systems to malfunction and repair bills become insurmountable.

Buying a Water Damaged Car

Experts say that modern vehicles have many electronic sensors and extensive wiring that is almost impossible to repair sufficiently if a car is flood damaged. Buying one with damaged electrical components that control the engine ignition, airbags, and road sensors can be dangerous if a vehicle malfunctions.

The most important reason to avoid buying flood damaged vehicles is that they can be a serious hazard. A vehicle that has sat in murky, often salty water may not show any signs of it until it gets dangerous. Salt water incursion can cause vehicle parts to break under stress (such as when driving) or to malfunction unexpectedly. Corroded parts aren’t as strong as they should be, and engines exposed to flood conditions could unexpectedly break down, such as loss of power steering while driving.

How to Spot a Flood Damaged Car

Vehicles that are inundated by flood water should be designated as such on their titles – “salvage” or “flood” to ensure that unsuspecting future owners are not mislead. However there are several situations under which a buyer may not be aware that a vehicle has been flooded, including:

  • If the owner did not have comprehensive insurance or the repair bill did not exceed a specific amount, the title may not reflect its true status;
  • Title washing, which is a process of applying for a new title in a state with lenient laws or loopholes that allow vehicles to be retitled without the “salvage” or “flood damage” designation, or
  • Deception by the seller, which is considered fraud.

Every time there is a significant flood event, some vehicles get picked up from salvage yards, cleaned up, and put on the market as used cars. Many are routed through different states so that they’re difficult to trace and pinpoint as potentially flood-damaged. A VIN check can help people avoid such a scam. A VIN is the unique number assigned to each vehicle made after 1986 which is stamped in several places on a car, including the corner of the windshield and inside the door jambs. This number is recorded on the vehicle’s title and allows potential buyers to research the number of previous owners, whether the car was owned or kept in a flood-ravaged region, whether its title is stamped “salvage” or “flood” and what kind of major issues it may have. If a vehicle’s history is untraceable or if the seller does not offer a clear title it’s a red flag to buyers to stay away.

A “salvage” title generally means that the car is a total wreck so the insurance company paid the owner off. Some salvage vehicles can  be rehabbed, retitled, and put back on the road (there are specific inspections that must take place by a specially qualified expert). But a flood damaged vehicle with “flood” stamped on the title is a particular red flag because it generally means that every system of the vehicle needs attention, rebuilding, or is in danger of serious damage or malfunction due to inundation.
water damaged car

How to Fix a Flood Damaged Car

Flood damage is insidious because it can be difficult to discover by someone untrained in examining cars – and it can be latent, slowly damaging the components of a vehicle and causing issues over time. Ways you can determine if a vehicle has been flood damaged include:

  • Have a qualified mechanic look the vehicle over and run tests before you buy it;
  • Be leery of vehicles sold with a bill of sale only because the title was “lost”; 
  • Get a vehicle history report that shows where the vehicle was registered in the past and stay clear of those potentially affected by floods in those locations;
  • Do a thorough inspection of the vehicle, or
  • Walk away from any used vehicle deals that are too good to be true.

Learn the tell-tale signs of flood damage, including:

  1. Dirt or silt in unusual places like the inside of the frame or inside glovebox, water lines inside doors, condensation in light fixtures or the dashboard display;
  2. Corrosion of the frame;
  3. Water stains on the air filter in the engine;
  4. Musty odor inside, or strong air freshener use that attempts to mask the mildew;
  5. Feel floor carpets and under the spare tire in the trunk to discern dampness or find evidence of rust;
  6. Evidence that the oil has been polluted by water (light color, somewhat sticky);
  7. Carpeting that has been replaced or that doesn’t match throughout the vehicle;
  8. Gently bend wires under the dashboard to determine if they’re brittle as a result of water exposure;
  9. Check under seats for mud, dirt, or rusted springs;
  10. Brake rotors and axles may show corrosion.