Avoid Getting Stuck with a Flood-Damaged Used Car
Last updated January 19, 2023
Buy a used vehicle that’s been inundated by flood waters, and you’re going to have problems down the road—no matter how nice the car looks.
Dishonest dealers and individuals continue to peddle refurbished cars and trucks that were damaged in floods—and these sellers often go to great lengths to hide these vehicles’ watery pasts from customers.
Listen to audio highlights of the story below:
“It’s very easy for a professional to clean up a vehicle and make it look new, when, in fact, the electronics and computers are in really bad shape,” said auto expert Jack Gillis, chairman of the board of directors for the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety. “This can present a safety hazard.”
If the water was high enough to get into the engine, passenger compartment, and trunk, it’s only a matter of time before the trouble starts. Flood water can cause the engine, exhaust system, airbags, antilock brakes, transmission, turn signals, and brake lights to fail. Mold, mildew, and bacteria in the car’s interior and ventilation system can cause health problems.
“Cosmetically, these cars might look great, but…it’s nearly impossible to tell they are literally rotting from the inside out,” said Emilie Voss, a spokesperson for CARFAX.
A waterlogged car that’s been refurbished may smell nice, but the deodorants used to disguise the odor will wear away in a few weeks, Gillis explained. When that happens, “you won’t want to be inside your vehicle,” he said.
A Serious Problem
Hurricanes are the most common ways vehicles become damaged. But, this year, cars and trucks damaged by flooding on the west coast from winter storms will also make it to the used-car market.
No one knows exactly how many waterlogged lemons get resold each year, but it’s a lot. Flooding from Hurricane Ian in September 2022 potentially damaged 358,000 vehicles in Florida and the Carolinas, according to a CARFAX estimate. That’s in addition to the 400,000 water-damaged cars that CARFAX data indicate were already on the road, before Ian hit.
While flood-damaged vehicles can end up for sale anywhere, CARFAX identified 10 states as the most common destinations: Texas (67,000), Florida (33,500), Kentucky (26,000), Pennsylvania (21,500), New Jersey (18,800), North Carolina (15,600), New York (14,600), California (14,200), Illinois (13,300), and Michigan (11,400).
“Title Washing” Helps Sell Flooded Vehicles
A “flood vehicle” is defined as one that has been “completely or partially submerged in water to the extent that its body, engine, transmission, or other mechanical component parts have been damaged,” according to the Insurance Information Institute.
If an insurance company decides a flood-damaged vehicle is a total loss, a designation of “salvage” or “junk” is supposed to be “branded” onto its title. But this branding designation may be in the form of a code that most consumers wouldn’t recognize, and might not even include the word “flood.”
Typically, that junk vehicle is sold at a salvage auction for scrap or usable parts. In some states, a certified mechanic can repair a salvage vehicle and sell it, so long as it has a new “rebuilt” title, which is supposed to alert a potential buyer to the vehicle’s history.
But the system is far from foolproof.
In some cases, the title branding is not “clear or prominent,” said Jon Linkov, deputy auto editor at Consumer Reports. This allows unscrupulous mechanics or used car dealers to “wash the title” to erase the vehicle’s soggy history.
“All of a sudden you have a new title, and that begins a process where the vehicle becomes titled, and retitled, and titled again, and moved around the country,” Linkov told Checkbook.
“At some point, the title gets possibly lost, or someone misses the code, and all of a sudden, a new title is issued for a car that looks like a perfectly fine vehicle.”
Anyone can sell flood-damaged vehicles, but you’re more likely to run into problems when you buy from a private party or small independent used car lot, said Ron Montoya, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com. Reputable dealers are more likely to check a vehicle’s history and run a mechanical check, to avoid the headaches that come with reselling flood-damaged cars, he said. Even so, you need to be careful.
- Inspect the carpets to see if they show signs of having been waterlogged. Do they smell musty or have caked-on mud? Brand-new carpeting in an older vehicle may be another red flag.
- Check the seat-mounting screws to see whether there’s any evidence they were removed. To dry the carpets effectively, the seats must be removed and possibly replaced.
- Inspect the lights. A visible waterline may still show on the lens or reflector.
- Inspect the difficult-to-clean places, such as gaps between panels in the trunk and under the hood, for mud and debris.
- Look on the bottom edges of brackets or panels, where it’s unusual for grime and dirt to settle.
- Look at the heads of any unpainted, exposed screws under the dashboard. Bare metal will show signs of rust in flooded cars.
- Check to see whether the rubber drain plugs under the car and on the bottom of doors look as if they have been removed recently. That may have been done to drain floodwater.
You can easily check on vehicle histories. Some dealers provide free CARFAX reports to potential buyers. If not, you can run your own vehicle history check, using these free online tools: Flood Check from CARFAX, Experian’s AutoCheck, and VinCheck from the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s (NICB).
Also enter the car’s VIN into the NHTSA’s online database to search for open safety recalls. As Checkbook has previously reported, vehicles are often resold with unaddressed, often life-threatening defects.
“It’s not a guarantee; it can’t catch everything, but it’s probably the best thing you can do as a used car shopper,” Montoya said.
Also have the vehicle checked over thoroughly by a body shop and a mechanical repair shop (Checkbook evaluates both types for quality and price). A test drive isn’t enough. Get these inspections before you sign the sales contract. If the seller won’t let you do that, walk away. And don’t let them convince you to use their mechanic. You want someone who’s working for you.
Checkbook often hears from used car buyers who have had a mechanic look at the vehicle after the sale. In most cases, once you drive off the lot (unless you bought an extended warranty), you’re stuck with that vehicle and paying for any repair work.
Body shops often do cursory inspections (that will spot major problems) for free or less than $75. Having a mechanical repair shop spend an hour or so to check a car usually costs $150 or less.
With today’s technology and today’s cleaning methods, “it’s pretty easy to clean up a car and make it look fabulous,” the Center for Auto Safety’s Gillis told Checkbook. “So, you need to have a mechanic check it before you buy.”
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and NBCNews.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.