By Lauren Fix, The Car Coach
A perfect storm can lead to bad choices with flood-damaged cars everywhere. Cars swamped in recent hurricanes and floodwaters could return to the market far away from the hurricane zone. Thousands of vehicles are flood and water damaged or destroyed every year due to bad weather. In the Katrina and Rita hurricanes, over 500,000 vehicles were damaged. Some were crushed or parted out, while others never made it to the junkyard. They ended up on used car lots and auctions, sold to unsuspecting buyers.
Now add in the used car shortage and its massive demand with low supply, and the perfect storm is about to hit. People are desperate, but don’t be foolish. If it looks too good to be true—IT IS! Don’t get tricked into buying a flood-damaged car that will leave you drowning in bills, with no warranty and other dangers.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), unscrupulous salvage operators and dealers often try to conceal that a natural disaster has damaged the vehicles they are selling. To prevent this type of fraudulent resale of cars to unsuspecting consumers around the country, the NICB has been helping law enforcement groups and insurance companies identify and catalog vehicles damaged by hurricanes.
The NICB has compiled a database of vehicles affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Ida, etc. It offers a free search of any car’s vehicle identification number (VIN), so used-car buyers can learn more about the car’s history and whether it has been involved in a claim related to Hurricane Katrina. Consumers can access this service from the NICB home page at http://www.nicb.org.
Here is what you need to know about flood-damaged vehicles:
- There are resellers who will repair and resell these vehicles in other parts of the country without the buyer being aware of the car’s waterlogged history. It’s called “title washing.”
- Title washing is a problem commonly seen in the used-car market. This process hides accurate information about a used car that’s for sale. A used car that has survived a flood or major accident will likely be scarred with issues that will impact its reliability.
- Laws are in place that protect consumers from unknowingly purchasing used cars that have been severely damaged. If a vehicle has been in a serious collision or a catastrophe such as a flood, its title will be branded. Different title brands reflect various types of damage. Vehicles that have been declared a total loss by an insurance company will be issued a salvage title, and a car that has been flooded will be given a water-damage title.
- There are unscrupulous sellers out there who have figured out how to manipulate a vehicle’s title by illegally removing the branding and leaving the buyer at risk.
Last week’s Hurricane Ida and this week’s Hurricane Nicholas have or will damage an unknown number of cars. You need to be vigilant when buying a used car, even if you don’t live near a traditional storm area.
Be on the lookout for the following indicators that a car may have been flooded:
- Mildew, debris, and silt in places where it wouldn’t normally be found, such as in the trunk or around the engine compartment
- Rust on screws and other metal parts
- Water stains or faded upholstery; discoloration of seat belts and door panels
- Dampness in the floor and carpeting; moisture on the inside of the instrument panel
- A moldy odor or an intense smell of Lysol or deodorizer used to cover up an odor problem.
- Condensation under the fuse box cover.
This is why it pays to have a mechanic inspect the car before you make an offer.
The Bottom Line
To avoid inadvertently purchasing a flood-damaged car, it’s essential that you only buy a used car from a reputable dealer, have a certified mechanic look for flood damage, and check the car’s vehicle identification number.
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. Again buyer beware.
Vehicle history reports are not all-inclusive and are no guarantee that a vehicle is problem-free, but they are good for screening potential cars. Ultimately, a detailed inspection is a consumer’s best protection, so you don’t drain your wallet.
If you have additional questions, put them in the comments below, and I’ll be happy to answer.
Lauren Fix, The Car Coach®, is a nationally recognized automotive expert, analyst, author, and television host. A trusted car expert, Lauren provides an insider’s perspective on a wide range of automotive topics and aspects, energy, industry, consumer news, and safety issues.
Lauren is the CEO of Automotive Aspects and the Editor-in-Chief of Car Coach Reports, a global automotive news outlet. She is an automotive contributor to national and local television news shows, including Fox News, Fox Business, CNN International, The Weather Channel, Inside Edition, Local Now News, Community Digital News, and more. Lauren also co-hosts a regular show on ABC.com with Paul Brian called “His Turn – Her Turn” and hosts regular radio segments on USA Radio – DayBreak.
Lauren is honored to be inducted into the Women’s Transportation Hall of Fame and a Board Member of the Buffalo Motorcar Museum and Juror / President for the North American Car, Utility & Truck of the Year Awards.
Check her out on Twitter and Instagram @LaurenFix.