How to Avoid Buying a Flood Damaged Car

Unknowingly buying a flood damaged car can have serious implications. An unethical seller can take a vehicle that's been flood damaged, give it a fresh coat of paint, new upholstery, and make it look, drive, and smell like a brand new (used) car. Like fishing, they just put it out there for sale and wait for an unsuspecting customer to bite.

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At first glance, the average car buyer will not be able to tell the vehicle has been flood damaged. By knowing what to look for you can protect yourself from buying a car that's been under water.

There are thousands of vehicles that are involved in floods and natural disasters every year. Over half of these vehicles end up back on dealer's lots for sale to the general public. This is big business for scammers and it happens even more in areas that are susceptible to hurricanes and major storms.

If you don't live by the coast you may think you'll never run across a vehicle that's been under water. This couldn't be further from the truth. Many vehicles involved in floods or other natural disasters are repaired and then shipped far away from where the incident took place.

Are Flood Damaged Cars Risky?

Flood waters can seriously damage a vehicle. The computer system, wiring harnesses and electrical connectors are normally the first things to go from corrosion over time. This can affect the operating systems such as airbags, anti-lock brakes and other electrically controlled safety devices especially if you're involved in an accident.

Once a vehicle's been underwater, it's not a question of if a problem will arise, it's when will a problem arise. Unexpectedly purchasing a flood-damaged car can cause you to lose thousands of dollars. First by paying more than what the vehicle is really worth and then losing money when it comes to selling the car or trading it in.

How Flood Damaged Vehicles Get into the Market

After a vehicle has been flood damaged and declared to be totaled, the insurance company will pay the owner fair market value of the vehicle. The insurance company will send it to either a salvage yard or an auto auction to recoup as much money as possible.

This is where unscrupulous buyers will pick up flood damaged vehicles for pennies on the dollar. Buying the car cheap allows them to spend money on it and bring it up to "just like new" condition. After they've reconditioned the vehicle, they still own the vehicle much cheaper than the true wholesale value.

Now these "like new" vehicles are sent to other parts of the country not directly affected by hurricanes or floods. Crossing state lines and being titled over and over until the title is washed free of the brand. Once the title's been washed, the vehicle is sent to auction or placed for sale on a dealer's lot waiting for an unsuspecting customer to buy the car.

There are individuals and companies that all they do is recondition flood damaged and salvage vehicles with the intent to sell them to the public. When one of these vehicle's is sold, the seller is suppose to disclose to the buyer the title's been branded. Unethical sellers conveniently forget when there's thousands of dollars to be made from an unsuspecting buyer.

You can protect yourself from buying a flood damaged car by using the vehicle's VIN to acquire a vehicle history report to see if a vehicle has ever been in a flood or had a branded title. Read more on how to check a vehicle's history for problems here.

How to Recognize a Flood Damaged Car

Flood damaged cars can be found on little corner lots or at big franchise dealerships. Keep in mind, the person selling the car may not know it had been in a flood. I've seen many flood vehicles in my career, I've even accidently bought a few by mistake.

There are a few tell-tale signs of flooding. Here are a few simple steps that myself and other appraisers across the country use to inspect a vehicle to determine if it's been previously been under water.

1) Inspect the Interior of the Vehicle

When opening the vehicle for the first time, take a deep breath and see if you smell a musty or moldy odor. Look under the dashboard to see if there are any brittle wires, mud or grit in any crevices. Also check for condensation or water lines behind the instrument panel and gages.

Check the trunk area and look under the carpet or around the spare tire for any evidence of odors, standing water, mud, or salt residue.

Look at the carpet, make sure it matches throughout the vehicle. Has it been replaced or recently shampooed? Look under the carpet for any salt or water stains from evaporated water.

Check for mud, grit, water stains, salt residue or rust on screws in consoles, change holders and the glove box. Anywhere these items would not be normally found unless the vehicle was previously under water.

Inspect for rust or corrosion on the inside of the vehicle on any metal areas most likely under the carpet and where the carpet meets the dashboard. Check small crevices on the dashboard for salt residue or stains. Inspect the door panels, upholstery and door panels for any fading, water lines, waves, peeling or odor.

Look for any corrosion or water evidence on the electrical system and components. Take particular care when looking at the metal fittings and the area inside and around them for any kind of flood-damage evidence.

2) Check the Engine Compartment

Check under the hood for any evidence of grit and water suspected from the vehicle being submersed. Look for possible salt residue from evaporation on the firewalls and engine itself.

Check for grit, corrosion or discolored mud in engine crevices, alternator crevices, power steering pump, recesses of starter motors, behind or around wiring harnesses, etc.

3) Inspect the Underside of the Car

Look under the vehicle for any kind of packed mud or grit in or around components like front or rear axles, brakes, gas tank or spare tire (if stored underneath the vehicle). Check for any corrosion, rust or flaking you would not normally find on a later model vehicle.

4) Research the Title History of the Vehicle

You can do this by using an online company I recommend such as AutoCheck® by Experian. Reviewing a used car's vehicle history report will not only let you know if the vehicle's previously been flood damaged, it'll let you know if there are any other title or odometer problems with the vehicle.

You must be careful with fly-by-night companies that offer cheap vehicle history reports. They will not provide you with all the information that may be available on the vehicle. Read my complete guide on vehicle history reports here.

5) Have the Vehicle Inspected by a Mechanic

A vehicle history report is not an alternative to having a car inspected by a mechanic. I highly recommend before signing the paperwork on any used car is to have it inspected by a certified independent mechanic.

Take it to a mechanic of your choice. Tell him you're looking to purchase the vehicle and would like him to put it on a lift and tell you if it is a reliable vehicle.

In Conclusion

Flood damaged vehicles move across the country on a daily basis. Repair facilities are doing a much better job cleaning up these cars to make it harder for the average car buyer to notice. These unethical sellers know they can't fool everybody but people keep unknowingly buying flood damaged cars. Arming yourself with the knowledge above decreases your chances dramatically from owning a car that's been involved in a flood.

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My Recommended Sites for Car Shopping

Car Clearance Deals and CarsDirect are the quickest way to check used car prices in your local area. These online sites will provide you with free, no-obligation quotes and the prices you're quoted are normally very good. You can also use this free information to negotiate a better price between dealers.

Share Your Tips - If you have any tips on flood damaged cars that will help others save money, please tell us about it in the comments below, so we can share it with everyone.

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Did You Know?


The quickest way to tell if a vehicle has been in a flood is buy reviewing the vehicle's history report and having a certified mechanic inspect the vehicle on a lift.

A vehicle history report will let you know if there are any odometer discrepancies, title issues or the vehicles been in any major accidents. A mechanic will be able to physically confirm the history report is correct.

More about Vehicle History Reports >>

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