Ghosts of Irene: How to avoid buying a flood-damaged car

Consumer Reports News: August 31, 2011 09:23 AM

As millions of Americans continue to clean up from Hurricane Irene and put their homes, and lives, back together, one lingering impact will be a new wave of flood-damaged cars making their way onto the used-car market.

A wet spring brought floods to many parts of the country, creating a pool of flood cars that will swell further with remnants of Irene. This means at a time when many people will be needing low-cost transportation, there will be many misrepresented cars on the market. And water-damaged cars aren’t limited to the storm regions. Often, such cars are moved across state lines where they can be re-titled with a clean bill of health, meaning all used-car shoppers nationwide need to be wary.

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.

The trouble is, flood damage may be hard to spot, yet 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.

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.

  1. Look under the carpets to see if they are wet, damp, or muddy.
  2. 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.
  3. Inspect the lights. Lights are expensive to replace, and a water line may still show in the housing on the lens or the reflector.
  4. 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.
  5. Look for mud or debris on the bottom edges of brackets or panels where it couldn't naturally settle from the air.
  6. Look at the heads of any unpainted, exposed screws under the dashboard; they can show signs of rust.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 or hurricane, 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.

See our used-car buying advice, ratings, and recommendations.

Jeff Bartlett

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