After a winter of heavy snowfall followed by a wet spring in much of the country, many Americans are bracing for, or already faced with, flooded neighborhoods and properties. While the water will eventually recede, some of its damage will linger for months or even years. Specifically, car buyers need to be aware of how to spot a vehicle that may have been through a flood.
Flood damage may be hard to spot, but it can permeate the vehicle and cause ongoing problems for the rest of the car's service life. Flood damage can ruin electronics, contaminate lubricants, and threaten mechanical systems, often without leaving outward signs. It can take months for incipient corrosion to find its way to the car's computer systems or air-bag controllers.
Worse news is that flood vehicles can be and often are moved out of states where the damage occurred, and resold in another state by unscrupulous profiteers. The reason is that some states make it easier to re-title a car that has been written off as a total loss, a process known as title washing. Those cars can end up with a clean bill of health, with no indication they were declared wrecks in an earlier life.
Tens of thousands of these were shipped to other states after being flooded in Louisiana and other southern states following hurricane Katrina, and unfortunately, the same scenario is likely to play itself out this time around.
If you're shopping for a car, make sure to check with your state's Department of Motor Vehicles to see what the laws are regarding re-titling used vehicles. Websites like Carfax can help learn a vehicle's history, but our experience indicates they don't always tell the full story. Consider a free VINCheck from the National Insurance Crime Bureau
or the federal government's National Motor Vehicle Title Information Systems database
. (Read: "Don't rely on used-car-history reports
As always, our advice is to have any used car inspected by a trusted mechanic before you buy it. And here are some tips to help you look for telltale signs yourself.
- Look under the carpets to see if they are wet, damp, or muddy.
- Check the seat-mounting screws to see if there is any evidence that they have been removed. To fully dry the carpets, the seats must be removed—not something that would occur with as a part of normal maintenance.
- Inspect the lights. Lights are expensive to replace, and a water line may still show in the housing on the lens or the reflector.
- Inspect the car in difficult-to-clean places, such as the gaps between panels in the trunk and under the hood. Water-borne mud and debris may still cling in these places.
- Look for mud or debris on the bottom edges of brackets or panels where it couldn't naturally settle from the air.
- Look at the heads of any unpainted, exposed screws under the dashboard; they can show signs of rust.
- Check the rubber drain plugs under the car and on the bottoms of doors. If they look as if they have been removed recently, it might have been done to drain floodwater.
- If you need to dig deeper, remove a door panel to see if there is a water mark on the inside of it.
If you are from an area impacted by a flood and have a car for sale that was not damaged, be aware that buyers may still suspect that it was. Consider having a mechanic inspect the car before you sell it so that you can present potential buyers with a clean bill of health.
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