5 signs of flood damage in a car

Know the signs of a vehicle that has suffered flood damage, so you don’t end up buying a battered vehicle. (Photo by Katie Jacewicz)

Know the signs of a vehicle that has suffered flood damage, so you don’t end up buying a battered vehicle. (Photo by Katie Jacewicz)

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s flooding, which left streets, driveways and garages inundated under many feet of water, it's likely that thousands of vehicles suffered catastrophic damage. And if you’re not careful, you could end up buying one of these soaked clunkers on the used car market in coming months.

Unfortunately, after major flooding events that damage large numbers of cars, trucks and SUVs, there’s always someone looking to make a quick buck by reselling totaled or flood-damaged vehicles. According to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, a federal database that tracks and reports vehicle title histories, after Hurricane Katrina, truckloads of flooded vehicles were taken out of Louisiana to other states, where they were dried out, cleaned and readied for sale to unsuspecting consumers in states that do not brand the titles of flooded vehicles.

Flood water causes serious damage to a vehicle, especially in the case of hurricanes. Exposure to seawater will corrode and damage metal components in the engine and transmission, short out electrical components – including important safety features like air bag sensors - and cause mold or mildew growth in the vehicle interior. That's why most insurance companies will write off a flooded vehicle as a total loss and permanently mark its title with a brand such as “salvage” or “flood.” But unscrupulous dealers can still purchase these vehicles at auction, mask the damage and attempt to sell them to unaware buyers.

“Once owners of damaged cars settle up with their insurance companies, vehicles are sometimes refurbished and resold, usually to an unsuspecting buyer in a state unaffected by the disaster,” says Ron Montoya, consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. “Electrical and mechanical problems can then surface long after the seller is gone, leaving the new owner with an unreliable car and no recourse against the seller.”

Look for these tell-tale signs to help determine if a car was in a flood:

  • Interior smells of mold, mildew or the aroma of heavy cleaning chemicals or masking odors
  • Discolored, stained upholstery or carpeting, or brand-new upholstery or carpeting that doesn’t match older sections
  • Moisture – such as fogginess or drops of water -  in areas where it shouldn’t be, including headlights, tail lamps and gauges
  • Problems with the electrical accessories such as lights, horn or radio
  • Sediment, dirt or other debris in areas where water would settle, such as the glove box, trunk or engine compartment

One of the best ways to avoid buying a flood-damaged used car is to deal with a reputable auto sales location. “A reputable lot is not going to take a chance on a car that’s been involved in a flood,” Montoya says, adding the consumers should be wary of any deal that seems too good to be true.

If the dealership checks out and you’re seriously considering the vehicle, make a modest investment in a title report from providers such as Carfax or Autocheck. The title report should provide any available information on the vehicle’s title history, including accidents, odometer readings, and flood or salvage branding, if available.


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