How to Avoid Flood Damaged Vehicles

Flood damaged vehicles have been on the road for years. Consumers beware: these cars are considered dangerous to drive and can be resold to unsuspecting buyers under titles that do not reveal their true history.


Currently, there are 325,510 of these cars in use nationwide. The top ten cities where these damaged vehicles continue to be in use are: Houston, New York, Philadelphia, Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News, Detroit, and Raleigh-Durham (Fayetteville). These cars can, and have been, resold to consumers either by their previous owner or a used car dealership. In some cases flood damaged vehicles are sold with full disclosure of its history, however, in other cases the vehicle history may be withheld or hidden through a process called “title washing.” This includes leaving information off of the automobile’s history or bringing it to another state and obtaining a “clean” title under which to sell it.


The cars which have suffered flood damage are often unsafe to drive because the flood waters could have warped or rusted brakes and rotors, caused an anti-lock braking system malfunction, or triggered some sort of airbag and restraint failure. Mechanically: the water could have corroded some of the metal leading to a weaker frame, water damage could also lead to exhaust system failure, a potential engine seizure, and transmission failure. Electrically, the car is more prone to have short circuiting wires, as well as light, dashboard, and computer malfunctions. The interior of the car may also bare signs of water damage and contain moldy fabric and host bacteria in the ventilation system.


Here are some suggestions to help buyers protect themselves from purchasing a flood damaged vehicle:


Consumer Safety (CS) recommends double checking the price first as it could be an indication of underlying damage.

“The first step in buying a used car is to make sure the asking price and trade-in value are in line with expectations. A low price doesn’t just mean you’re getting the best deal possible. While every used car is going to fall within a certain price range, if the car you’re looking to buy is severely undervalued, you should ask questions about why that is that the case.”

Additionally, CS suggests that car buyers should ask for a vehicle history report. Buyers can also research the car’s history by looking up its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) online. The VIN is a 17 character identifying number that can be found on the door jamb or under the windshield of the car. The history of the car should provide information about open recalls, registration, maintenance, junk-flood-salvage title branding, accident or frame damage, and any odometer rollbacks.

Consumer Safety, CarFax, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) all state that checking under the hood and inside the vehicle is another way to ensure that the car has not been through a flood.

The NICB has identified a few tips to help buyers discern if a car may have been through a flood:

  1. Check vehicle carpeting for water damage
  2. Check for rust on screws or other metallic items
  3. Inspect upholstery and seat belts for water stains
  4. Remove spare tire and inspect area for water damage
  5. Check the engine compartment for mud or indicators of submergence
  6. Check under the dashboard for mud or moisture
  7. Inspect headlights and taillights for signs of water
  8. Check the operation of electrical components
  9. Check for mold or a musty odor

By using all of these tips, suggestions and recommendations, consumers will reduce their likelihood of purchasing a flood damaged vehicle.

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