In the wake of intense Hurricane Harvey flooding, automotive data firm Black Book estimates that as many as 500,000 vehicles will be effectively destroyed throughout the Texas region.

And with Hurricane Irma bearing down on Florida and the Southeast, more vehicles are expected to be damaged or destroyed by floodwaters.

Those losses will create a high demand for cars in the storm-stricken regions, and that will likely impact nationwide availability.

"Dealers are going outside the area to find replacement inventory, and we expect this activity to pick up in the coming weeks, especially as people continue to receive their insurance checks," said Anil Goyal, senior vice president of automotive valuation and analytics at Black Book. "Vehicle values are holding steady, but we expect prices to see upward pressure in the coming weeks as the demand for vehicles increases as buying activity also increases.”

One concern is the resale of water-damaged cars camouflaged as ordinary used cars.

Flood cars are often transported well beyond their original region after major storms to locations where consumers may be less aware of what warning signs to look for.

Water can ruin electronics, lubricants, and mechanical systems. It can take months or years for corrosion to find its way to the car's vital electronics, including airbag controllers. Consumers need to carefully inspect (or pay their mechanic to do it) any used car before buying one.

Consumer Reports chief mechanic John Ibbotson says to avoid vehicles with signs of deep water exposure "even if a vehicle looks acceptable, and may be working when you inspect it." That's because the long-term effects of water damage can haunt buyers for the life of the car.

Too often, when an insurance company declares a flood-damaged car as a total loss, that information isn't communicated to potential buyers. 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, this warning is shown on the title as an obscure coded letter or number.

Totaled cars are typically sold at a salvage auction to junkyards and vehicle rebuilders. Reselling them to consumers may be legal if the flood damage is disclosed on the title. Those “salvage title” cars cannot be registered until necessary repairs are made and the vehicle is re-inspected by officials. Then the vehicle is given a “rebuilt” title, which allows it to be registered for consumer use.

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

Flood damaged electric circuit board
Water can get into the electrical system, causing more damage than may be visible on an initial inspection.
Photo: Mel Yu


Check our used-car buying guide.
 

One useful online tool for car shoppers is the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), which helps consumers run background checks.

This system aims to crack down on the practice of “title washing,” when cars that have been totaled (or stolen) can get clean new titles in states with lax regulations. The NMVTIS website lists several information providers, with varying prices and services.

However, if the vehicle’s owner didn't have comprehensive insurance coverage at the time of the flooding, or the repair bill didn’t exceed a certain level, the vehicle might not get a "salvage" or branded title at all. There are only a few states that offer a “flood” title, which requires a history of any flood damage.

Carfax offers a free flood damage check, in addition to the vehicle history reports it sells. These checks show the "possibility of flood damage" based on flood area history and registered address at the time, whether the vehicle’s title shows flood history or not.

For a basic check, the National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free VIN-check service, although it doesn't use as many data sources as some paid providers do.

Of course, vehicle history reports are not all-inclusive and are no guarantee that a vehicle is problem-free. But they are a valued aid in screening potential cars. Ultimately, a detailed inspection is the best protection.

Flood-damaged car interior
Chasing the gremlins caused by water damage can be an extensive and expensive process.
Photo: Mel Yu

How to Spot a Flood-Damaged Car

Water damage can be hard to detect, but Consumer Reports recommends that you look for some telltale signs:

  • Inspect the carpets to see if they show signs of having been waterlogged, such as smelling musty or having caked-on mud. Likewise, brand-new carpets in an older vehicle may be another red flag.
  • Check the seat-mounting screws to see if there is any evidence that they have been removed. To dry the carpets effectively, the seats must be removed and possibly even replaced.
  • Inspect the lights. Headlights and taillights are expensive to replace, and a visible water line 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. 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 normally.
  • Search around the engine compartment. Water lines and debris can appear in hard-to-clean places, such as behind the engine.
  • Look at the heads of any unpainted, exposed screws under the dashboard. Unpainted metal in flood cars will show signs of rust.
  • Check to see if 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.

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.