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In the wake of the devastation from Hurricane Harvey in Texas is some estimated half a million flood damaged cars.
This number represents a combination of new cars flooded as they sat on car lots filling with water and used cars privately owned and declared “totaled” by flood damage.
How Flood Waters Damage Vehicles
Besides the obvious, visible damage to upholstery and carpeting, flood water is also particularly toxic to vehicles.
The chemicals, salt water and dirt in flood waters can wreak havoc on a vehicle’s electronic systems, lubricants and mechanical components.
To thoroughly clean these systems the components must be totally disassembled, cleaned and put back together. Some insurance companies and auto shops are honest about it and do a thorough job. Most don’t.
What To Look For When Shopping Used Cars In Flood-Damaged Areas
If the damage to the vehicle and estimated repairs exceeds the value of the vehicle the insurance company will declare the vehicle totaled.
These vehicles are required by law to be titled as “Salvaged.”
Most of them are then sold for scrap or parts.
However, only about half of them take this path. The other half are partially repaired, cleaned up enough to sell and sold to an unsuspecting buyer.
It is vitally important to check the title history on any vehicle, but especially ones from recently flood-damaged areas. Of course, the car you are looking at in Indiana could have come from Texas, so being in a different location is no guarantee.
Six Ways to Spot a Flood Damaged Car
While it can be difficult in a quick test drive to determine if a car has been flooded, there are some things to look for:
1. Pull back a corner of carpeting in both the main cabin and the trunk. Look for wet material or insulation/padding under the outer layers of carpet.
You may even see left over mud or dirt trapped under the carpeting if the car was submerged.
2. Turn on the vehicle’s air conditioner and heater, even in the summer. Pay close attention to the smell coming out of the vents. Musty, moldy smells are a warning sign of a flood damaged car.
3. Open the glove box, console and any other compartments. Lift any rubber mats in these compartments and check for residual water. Check screw heads in each of these areas for any rust.
4. Inspect wiring under the dash. Wiring and the sheath around it that has been submerged and dried out often turns brittle.
5. Check interior lights and reflectors on the door panel. Water has a way of working into these light and reflector housings, and even after it dries, a fog or moisture bead stays behind. Look for tiny drilled holes which may have been an attempt to drain water.
6. Open the hood and take a good look. Does the hood light work? Are the hood hinges or support rod rusted? Is there excessive dirt or mud caked under the frame? Is there a brand new battery, but overly rusted, corroded battery cables?
Private Sale Buyers Beware
Most dealers do a good job of full-disclosure when selling used cars, because they want to avoid legal trouble and negative publicity.
The next most-reliable source of used cars are smaller, dedicated used car dealerships.
The least reliable source is a private owner selling a used car.
After natural disasters those without insurance often attempt to clean up a flood damaged car themselves and resell to get rid of them.
Those shopping private sale used cars in areas impacted by recent floods should use extra caution.