Beware the flood of flood cars

Signs that a used car may have been damaged

Last updated: May 2014

Photo: Dennis K. Johnson

Hurricane and tornado seasons routinely damage large number of cars. Unfortunately, many of them-as-well as countless other water-damaged cars--make it to the used-car market, camouflaged as ordinary used cars. That's a problem because water damage can be hard to spot.

Immersing a car in water can ruin electronics, lubricants, and mechanical systems, for it can take months or years for the incipient corrosion to find its way to the car's vital electronics such as air-bag controllers.

A federally sponsored car-tracking database, or wreck registry", might help consumers avoid these damaged vehicles.

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) helps consumers run background checks. It aims to crack down on the practice of “title washing,” where cars that have been totaled (or stolen) can get clean new titles in states with lax regulations.

Too often, when an insurance company decides a flood-damaged car is totaled, the information isn't clear to any future buyer. Once a car is totaled, it’s supposed to get a new title, called a salvage title. Those titles are usually either plainly marked (“branded” is the term used) with the word “salvage” or “flood.” In some states the warning is an obscure coded letter or number. Totaled cars are typically sold at a salvage auction to junkyards and vehicle rebuilders. Reselling is legal, as long as the flood damage is disclosed to buyers on the title, say experts at CarFax, a website that tracks vehicle histories and sells reports to consumers online.

But as Consumer Reports found in an investigation of "rebuilt wrecks", some flood-damaged vehicles magically reappear with clean titles. Be especially wary of any used car with a "lost" title.

For now, the NMVTIS is a work in progress. It will eventually gather information from every auto insurer, state motor-vehicle department, and junk or salvage yard, but so far only 13 states are fully complying, 14 are providing some data, 14 more are not participating, and 10 are moving toward compliance.

There have long been services that let consumers check a vehicle’s history by using the VIN. The biggest are CarFax, and Experian’s AutoCheck. CarFax charges $35 to check out one car, and Experian charges $30. CarFax says it gathers information from police agencies among other public record sources, which may be one reason it's costlier.

The NMVTIS website lists two information providers, AutoDataDirect, which charges $2.50 to run down information, and CArCO Group, Inc., which charges $2.25 for a summary and $3.50 for a more complete report.

You don't have to pay anything, as the National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free VIN-check service.

Note: Vehicle-history reports are NOT all-inclusive and are no guarantee that a vehicle is problem-free.  

How to spot a flood-damaged car

Water damage can be hard to detect, but there are some telltale signs you should be aware of:

  • Inspect the carpets to see if they show signs of having been waterlogged, such as smelling musty or having caked-on mud.
  • Check the seat-mounting screws to see if there is any evidence that they have been removed. To dry the carpets, the seats must be removed, not generally a part of normal maintenance.
  • Inspect the lights. Headlights and taillights are expensive to replace, and a visible water line may still show on the lens or the reflector.
  • Inspect the difficult-to-clean places, such as gaps between panels in the trunk and under the hood. Waterborne mud and debris may still appear in these places.
  • Look for mud or debris on the bottom edges of brackets or panels, where it wouldn’t settle naturally.
  • Look at the heads of any unpainted, exposed screws under the dashboard.
    Unpainted metal in flood cars will show signs of rust.
  • Check if the rubber drain plugs under the car and on the bottom of doors look as
    if they have been removed recently. It may have been done to drain floodwater.

If you’re from an area affected by a flood and have a car that wasn’t damaged, be aware that buyers might suspect it was. Consider having a mechanic inspect your car before you put it up for sale so that you can present potential buyers with a clean bill of health.

Used car buying guide

Learn more about choosing a used car, avoiding a lemon, buying and selling a used car, pricing and financing, and more in our used car buying guide.


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