10 Tips to Avoid Buying a Flood-Damaged Car

Flood-Damaged Cars Flooding the Market

According to the National Insurance Crimes Bureau (NICB), a “flood vehicle” is defined as a vehicle that has been completely or partially submerged in water to the extent that its body and mechanical component parts have been water damaged. In many parts of Canada and the U.S., if these vehicles have insurance claims made on them, they are declared as salvage vehicles only – suitable only for parts. You need to know how to avoid buying a flood-damaged car.

Unfortunately there are many unscrupulous people buying the vehicles, cleaning them up to hide the flood damage then ship them to states unaffected by flooding to be sold as used cars.  They also do not disclose the damage on the title document, which is a crime called “title washing.”

flood-damaged car

Wayne Hsieh, “Inundated Cars“, May 2010, Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

When a vehicle gets flooded, water and moisture stays in places you would never think of. Parking brake cables may look fine but disintegrate with rust after a few months, or freeze solid in that first winter cold snap. Shifter cables and throttle cables will do the same thing. They may work fine for months and then suddenly lock solid.

Electrical components are where the biggest problems occur. Relays start to corrode inside; just like the cables, they may work for months and then start failing. You can diagnose the problem and replace the relay, but then a week later another one fails.

One of the most serious issues is with air bags. Many vehicles use sensors and modules mounted beneath the seats or console to determine collision impacts and deploy the airbags. The modules may be sealed in epoxy, but the connectors to them are not so they corrode easily. The corrosion can prevent the airbags from functioning, or could even short out terminals and set off airbags when not needed. Needless to say, either situation could be dangerous.

10 Tips to Avoid Buying a Flood-Damaged Car.

So, how to you tell if a vehicle has been flood damaged? It sometimes isn’t easy.

  • Check beneath the sill plates. These are the plastic trim panels that are at the bottom of the door openings and finish up the joined areas of the vehicle side and floor panels. Often these trim pieces can be popped off easily. Look for silt in low spots. Dust is normal, fine silt isn’t.
  • If you catch a whiff of mold turn and run, you don’t want to have to deal with mold removal. Also watch out for the use of a strong deodorizer or Lysol as they are likely being used to mask the smell of mold.
  • Watch out for rust on metal parts that water would not normally be in contact  with unless the car was submerged.
  • Water damage on seatbelts and door panels or water stains on the upholstery.
  • Damp carpets.
  • If you find silt in the trunk, the engine compartment or under the carpets chances are high the car has been in a flood.
  • Beware of cars with new or mismatched upholstery.
  • If the car has is a paper air filter, check it – if it has water stains the car has likely been flooded.
  • Ask the seller if the vehicle has had flood damage – sounds simple, but answers like “not to the best of my knowledge” or “the previous owner didn’t tell me of any flood damage” are red flags.  Get the answer in writing with the bill of sale.
  • Ask to see the title – if it is not stamped “flood” or “salvage”, get the car’s history to find out if has come from a recently or previously flooded area of the country.

Vehicles sold with pre-existing damage are not covered under a standard Auto Insurance policy.  If you buy a used vehicle and later discover that it was damaged from being submerged in flood waters, your Auto Insurance will not cover the cost of needed repairs.

There used to be a common misconception among car buyers that when purchasing a used car, owners inherit the previous problems of that vehicle. That is no longer the case. With certified used vehicles and services like CARFAX Vehicle History Report, consumers can rest assured they are buying a reliable vehicle.

In addition, contact your local dealer of that manufacturer, and ask the service department to run the vehicle identification number (VIN) to see if there are any recalls or technical service bulletins that may or may not have been performed. Also ask if there were any major repairs. If you can get receipts for any maintenance or repairs to this vehicle, it will help you decide whether the car was taken care of or just driven hard.

Also see: Mold in Car a Big Challenge to Clean and Toxic Car Syndrome: Mold Mildew From Your Car’s Air Conditioning