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Dangerous Flood Cars Are On The Increase: How To Avoid Buying One

Dangerous Flood Cars Are On The Increase: How To Avoid Buying One

November 1, 2018

As 2018 comes to a close, another hurricane season has come and gone. And just like 2017, 2018 saw two major storms make landfall in the US. Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas hard in September. Hurricane Michael made its destructive impact on the Florida panhandle in October.

The initial effects of the high-speed winds of these two Category 4 hurricanes were devastating enough, causing widespread destruction and loss of life. But the massive rainfall that followed these storms affected even more people. Florence alone dropped nearly three feet of rain along its path, causing rivers to overflow their banks, and flooding areas that had never before seen any high water. Along with the damage to businesses and homes, thousands and thousands of vehicles were flooded. You may have seen these flood cars, trucks, and SUVs in the news coverage of these severe weather events, fully submerged in the flood waters.

New research from Carfax reveals that a minimum of 107,000 cars were damaged during Hurricane Florence. This is in addition to the current 478,000 flood cars that have already been purchased, or are currently for sale. Many of these were flooded during 2017’s hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

What Happens When A Car Gets Flooded?

A flood car that has been submerged in water will fall victim to the many destructive effects of the flood waters it has been soaking in. These can include:

  • Damage to the exterior paint finish
  • Damage to interior fabrics and trim
  • Contamination of the interior materials, the storage areas, and the ventilation systems
  • Mechanical damage to engine, transmission, and exhaust systems
  • Corrosion in the wiring, electronics, and safety systems, which may not reveal itself until months or years after the flooding

What Happens To All Of Those Flooded Cars?

In a perfect world, all of these damaged flood cars would be destroyed. Most new cars which are flood damaged are usually reported by new car dealers to their insurance companies. The insurance companies then process the claims, take the vehicles away, and dismantle them. This keeps most new flood cars out of the system.

Things can be very different with used flood cars. Unscrupulous used car resellers can quickly clean up a flood car so that it will appear to be in good condition as it sits on the lot. They hose off the mud and debris, steam clean the engine, shampoo the upholstery and the carpeting, and then put a coat of wax over the paint. Before anyone knows it, this flooded vehicle looks presentable, ready for an unsuspecting buyer to make a decision they are sure to soon regret.

Another tactic used to sell flooded vehicles is to “launder” their titles through states that have very lax used-car sales regulations. A flood car that has been given a salvage title in state A can be retitled as a legit used car in state B, and then sold on the open market. These vehicles look fine and may drive fine for a while, but they are ticking time bombs that you should avoid at all costs. Buyer beware!

What Can You Do To Avoid Buying A Flood Car?

Start Inside

First close all of the windows, then let the car sit for a few minutes. Now get inside and close the door. Use your nose to sniff out any unusual smells that don’t belong. Mildew, mold, and musty smalls are a tip-off that the car was flooded. At the other extreme, a very strong smell of cleaning chemicals or deodorizers can tell you that a cover-up of those flood smells has occurred.

Next, look closely at all of the interior materials as you continue to sniff. Check out the seat fabric and cushioning material, the carpeting and its padding, the door panels, the fabric on the ceiling, and the rear window shelf on sedans and coupes. Take a close look at the dashboard, particularly the instruments and underneath it. Look for dirt and debris in crevices, look for water stains, check for water lines where the rising flood waters left a mark. Random rust spots and areas of dampness should also alert you.

You may also notice seats or carpeting that appear to be cleaner or newer than the rest of the used vehicle. This can be a tip-off that these items were replaced, because the originals could not be sufficiently restored.

Check Under The Hood

Open the hood and examine the area around the engine for more clues. Look for a water line, as well as rust, debris, mud, or water stains. Pull out the oil and transmission fluid dipsticks, checking for beads of water, or a frothy or creamy-looking substance on them. Finding any or all of these things should have you ruling this vehicle out of your search.

Carefully Inspect The Electronics And The Wiring

Corrosion from flooding has a delayed effect on the electronics and wiring system. Over a period of months, the corrosion steadily spreads across the vehicle’s many different circuit boards, affecting more and more subsystems within the formerly flooded vehicle. Diagnosing these ongoing problems is not only difficult, but also time consuming and thus very expensive.

Start by turning the ignition key to the start position (or push the start button if the vehicle has one) and be sure that all of the warning lights come on during the initial test phase. If certain key warning lights, such as the check engine, anti-lock brakes, or airbag light do not light up briefly, this could indicate system failures that a seller is trying to cover up by disconnecting the lights. This is a very bad sign.

Next, continue by checking that all of the electrical and electronic systems in the vehicle operate properly, including:

  • The exterior headlights, taillights, brake lights, turn signals, flashers, fog lights, and marker lights
  • Air conditioner
  • Radio and audio system
  • Infotainment system
  • Power windows, seats, mirrors, locks, sunroof, etc.

Visually inspect the interior and exterior lights for fogging, residual water ,or condensation inside the housings. Make sure that every position of every control switch is operational.

Look For Other Clues

Here are some other places to look for flood damage that may not have been cleaned up:

  • Check the wheel wells for mud, debris, or water accumulation
  • Look underneath the vehicle for excessive rust
  • Look under the trunk carpeting, and beneath the space tire

Take A Thorough Test Drive

If everything looks fine so far, it is time to drive the vehicle in question and see how it operates on the road. It is essential that you take all the time you need to determine that all systems of the vehicle operate properly.

The vehicle should start easily and idle smoothly. All of the electrical accessories should work properly at all possible settings. The audio system should sound good. There should not be any strange sounds or smells as the engine idles and runs. As you drive it, the engine should accelerate strongly and smoothly, the transmission should shift smoothly, the suspension should deal with sharp turns and bumps acceptably, and the brakes should stop you securely. Run the heater and the air conditioner to check for correct operation, as well as strange smells. Take all the time you need, and don’t let yourself be rushed.

A Little Research Can Save You A Lot Of Trouble

You may be able to find out where a used car spent its previous life by checking with Carfax or other databases. If it was registered and serviced in an area that was flooded, this could tip you off about flood damage. Carfax offers a free service that can tell you whether this vehicle has reported flood damage. You can also investigate a vehicle’s history by checking the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Just keep in mind that every flood-damaged vehicle may not appear in these databases.

Final Tips To Avoid Buying A Flood Car

Buy from someone you can trust. Avoid private sellers – some of them are actually resellers who avoid oversight and regulation by presenting themselves this way. Online auctions can also harbor buyers who can’t be trusted. A reputable, long-established local new or used car dealer, one with good online reviews, is less likely to try to deceive you. Make sure that the vehicle’s title is not listed as either “flood” or salvage.” Check that the Vehicle Identification Numbers on the dashboard plaque, the title, and the registration all match.

Have a mechanic check the vehicle before you buy it. If you have a mechanic, have him or her thoroughly inspect and check any vehicle you are seriously considering buying. It is well worth the reasonable cost to avoid a flood car. If you don’t have a relationship with a mechanic, ask your friends or relatives for a reference. Doing this can save you an awful lot of aggravation – and money!

Leasing A New Car Eliminates Every Flood Car Problem

The moral of the story is a simple one; leasing a new car eliminates every possible hazard related to buying a used flood car:

  • You get a fresh, clean, brand-new car
  • You get a multi-year new car warranty that covers any defects
  • Monthly lease payments are equal to or lower than used car purchase payments
  • You can get into a lease with little or no money down

Leasing makes so much sense when you look at it this way. A new car has none of the “bad history” that can often be a part of the used flood car buying experience. Consider the benefits, the lower costs, and the protections of leasing your next vehicle!