Beware of Flood Damaged Vehicles

flooded toyota dealership during Hurricane Harvey
Flooded toyota dealership | Hurricane Harvey 2017.

When you buy a used car you probably think about the possibility of accident damage. Perhaps paint on the fender doesn’t quite match that on the door. Maybe the plastic on one headlight is clearer than that on the other.

Providing repairs have been made professionally these things shouldn’t put you off, although you may try negotiating a lower price. But what about flood damage?

Flood damage is expensive to repair, so vehicles that have been flooded are often totaled by their insurance companies. Many will then be repaired and resold. Such vehicles should be identified as such on their title but some less scrupulous sellers avoid this. That’s because flood damage takes a big bite out of the value of a car. Quite simply, most car buyers don’t want a vehicle that’s been immersed in dirty water, and for very good reason.

What Water Can Do to a Car

There are three scenarios to consider. Think of them as Bad, Worse and Dreadful. Bad is when water rises up around a parked car. It gets into the passenger compartment, soaking carpets, seats and electronics. It fills the engine bay, diluting or washing away lubricating oils and replacing them with dirt and grit. And it can get into the braking system, fuel tank and fuel lines.

Worse is when the vehicle was driven into flood water. This happens a lot with flooded underpasses. The driver plows through what looks like a few inches of water, only to find it’s much deeper. Water gets drawn through the intake system and into the engine. Unlike the fuel and air mixture the engine expects, water is incompressible, so as the pistons rise in flooded cylinders the engine locks solid, often sustaining severe damage in the process.

Dreadful is when the flooding is from sea water. While the immediate damage is the same as for river or rain water, salt water is far more corrosive and the long-term consequences even more destructive.

Long Term Consequences

If carpets and upholstery aren’t replaced after sitting in water they’re liable to develop mildew. Components that need lubrication – suspension parts and door hinges for example – will likely suffer rapid wear. Brake fluid absorbs moisture that boils when the brakes get hot. And an engine that’s flooded and locked will need a complete rebuild or replacement.

More insidious though is the effect of corrosion. Exposed screws will rust quickly. Silt in the bottom of doors makes a wonderful breeding ground for rust, and most serious of all, circuit boards will corrode. This leads to all kinds of electrical problems, like windows, fans and CD players that won’t work, or airbags that trigger for no apparent reason. (That last one can be really nasty!)

Spotting Flood Damage on a Car

If you live in an area that was hit by a storm or hurricane – Sandy and of course Harvey are the most recent examples – it should be obvious that you need to look for flood damage. But living outside of Texas, New York or New Jersey doesn’t put you in the clear.

Rivers can burst their banks and underpasses fill with water anywhere, plus, cars from those recently flooded areas may be taken out of State to be sold.

Just because you’re in Michigan or Ohio it doesn’t mean a car flooded by Harvey can’t make its way to you. And don’t forget that new cars at dealerships can get flooded too!

When a flooded car has been repaired the damage is often hard to spot. My article on "How to Avoid a Flood Damaged Car" goes into a little more depth. However, here are three things you can do immediately to protect yourself.

3 steps to protect yourself:

  • Run a vehicle history report.
  • Pay for a professional inspection.
  • Use your nose and eyes.

Let’s take a deeper dive into these, (if that’s not too watery a metaphor!)

Vehicle History Report

There are several commercial services you can go to. If the vehicle you’re looking at was ever totaled these should have a record. They will sometimes also tell you if a vehicle was registered in an area that suffered flooding.

Just having an address in an area that flooded doesn't tell you if the car was immersed though. It’s always possible that the owner moved it to higher ground before the water arrived.

Which Company is the Best?

With several used car history report services online it can be difficult to decide which one will give you the most value for your money. I've personally pulled thousands of history reports in my car career. These companies can basically be broke down into two categories:

  • Not recommended - Low cost report providers that provide limited information gathered from the Federal Government National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). I've used several of these companies only to find out they consistantly miss valuable information when researching the paper trail history of a car. (Keep in mind, there's a reason they're cheap!)
  • Recommended - Companies that seek out as much data as possible to provide you with the most information about the vehicle so you can make a good buying decision. These companies missions are to be the best vehicle history providers in the business and even provide a guarantee on the information provided in their reports.

I've used many of these online services in my dealerships to protect myself, the dealership, and my customers from buying an unreliable car. Reviewing a used car's history report is not a requirement. However, it should be yours with the rise of unethical practices within the car industry. It's becoming more important when uncovering underlying problems not visible to the naked eye.

Who We Recommend

Most companies only allow you to buy one report at a time or they will sell you a small package of just 3-5 reports. This will limit you if you're browsing several vehicles at one time.

We recommend AutoCheck Vehicle History Reports, they are an Experian company. You may have not heard of them because they don't advertise like the others. Most major auto auctions and lenders use AutoCheck over its competitors because of how accurate they are in disclosing vehicles that have been rebuilt or branded with frame damage.

We highly recommend the "Multiple Reports Package" which allows you to run 25 vehicle history reports for 21 days. Not only will this let you know if the car has been reported as a branded title. It will give you more than enough time to research and compare as many vehicles as needed so you can make a good buying decision. If you believe you will need to run more reports, you can opt for the Unlimited Package which allows you to run unlimited reports for a three week time frame.

With the AutoCheck's Multiple Report plan you can even run history checks from your Smartphone, tablet or iPad while you're on the dealers lot looking at vehicles.

Single Vehicle History Report $24.99 - This option will allow you to run your report within 30 days of purchasing. If you know the exact car your looking to buy this option will allow you to get all the data you need to make a good buying decision. Click here for a single AutoCheck report.

The Multiple Report Package (Best Value) $49.99 - If you're unsure of the car you want to buy. You can run up to 25 reports for 21 days with this package, giving you peace of mind you purchased a reliable used car. Click here for the AutoCheck Multiple Report Package.

Other Options?

Another option is The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). Run by the Department of Justice, for a small fee this should indicate whether a vehicle has been in a flood. However, as stated above, you get what you pay for. You may not get all the information readily available as you would find on an AutoCheck report.

None of these systems are infallible though and it is possible for a vehicle to slip through, (or more likely, for a shady repairer to duck the system.) For this reason a thorough inspection is always advisable. Read my complete guide on used car vehicle history reports.

Professional Inspection

For a fee a certified mechanic will inspect the vehicle you’re thinking of buying. You can find inspection services online: just make sure they are reputable and qualified!

Nose and Eyes

Before deciding whether to spend money on an inspection or a history check, take a good look at the vehicle. Any musty odor should be an immediate red flag, but so too should an interior reeking of air freshener. Ask yourself what that’s hiding!

Likewise, if the carpets seem new or the seats have been out, you’d be wise to suspect flood damage. (You can tell if the seats have been removed because the screw heads holding them in place will likely be marked.)

Flood water carries a lot of dirt and debris, and it’s very difficult to get this out of every corner. Check the nooks and crannies in the trunk (lift any carpet for a better look,) and also under the hood. While you’re poking around, look for any rusty screw heads. These get some corrosion protection at the factory but it’s not enough to ward off the effects of flooding, especially in salt water.

Two other points to check are the light clusters and the drain plugs in the floor. With the lights, depending on how high the water reached, there may be a watermark on the plastic lenses or the reflectors. Drain plugs are put in when the car is painted at the factory and are sometimes visible from underneath. It will be obvious if they’ve been removed at some point to let water run out.

Buyer Beware

When floodwater recedes there are a lot of calls to insurance companies. It’s estimated that a quarter million vehicles were scrapped after Superstorm Sandy, and projections for Harvey losses are currently hovering at about a million. That means a lot of flood damaged vehicles could find their way onto the used car market over the coming months.

Flood water does a lot of damage to cars and trucks. While a flood damaged vehicle will probably be sold cheaply it will have problems in store for the next owner. Not checking for signs of water damage could be a very expensive mistake.

Be a Smart Car Shopper

The number one tip for saving the most money when shopping for a new or used car is to always, "DO YOUR HOMEWORK FIRST!" For more hints and tips on navigating the new and used car buying process, spend a little time upfront before beginning your car shopping journey by browsing through my 100% free online car buying guide - AutoCheatSheet.com.

As always, I recommend using an online referral service such as CarClearanceDeals or CarsDirect before visiting a car dealership. Their free online price quotes will automatically include any discounts or cash-back incentives currently available in the marketplace.