Car Buyers Beware: How to Spot Flood-Damaged Cars

Here are some startling facts for you: Vehicle-history reporting service Carfax has noted more than half of the whopping 703,000 flood-damaged cars claimed by hurricanes such as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, 2008’s Hurricane Ike and 2012’s Hurricane Isaac were back on the road and bought by unsuspecting new owners, living several states away.

According to Bailey Woods, the spokesman for the National Automobile Dealer’s Association, “It is often not easy to identify a flood-damaged car. People who try to resell these cars purchased from insurance auctions may have done a very good job of cleaning the vehicle and know how to remove a flood ‘brand’ from the title. No reputable dealer wants to sell a flood-damaged vehicle, because it’s likely to have problems in the future.”

These problems can include mold growth underneath seats, corrosion of water-soaked electrical connections or transmission failure due to silt contamination, to name just a few.

So what is being done to protect consumers?  According to Charles Plueddeman of MSN Autos, the Justice Department is creating a national database called the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, which will use the vehicle identification number, rather than the title to create a permanent record of vehicles reported as stolen, or branded as junked, flooded or salvaged. This way, cars can’t be retitled to remove a car-flooded record.

Even with this measure, which has yet to be fully implemented, car buyers can do more to make sure they don’t have a water damaged car on their hands.

Here are a few tips to follow from MSN Auto:

Check the report: The most obvious way is to buy a title history report, which can reveal if the vehicle has ever had a flood-damage brand. The department’s databases are making these reports more comprehensive but you should still back them up with careful inspection, especially in the case of car that’s been titled in other states.

Sniff it out: Jim Jacobson, a 30-year veteran of the car sales business and owner of Jacobson Auto Sales in Oshkosh, Wisconsin suggests smelling the interior of a car, as the first step in your inspecting process. “If it smells musty, I’ll just walk away,” he says. “Only bleach will really disinfect the interior after a flood, and that’s going to ruin upholstery — and then you’ll smell the bleach.” He also says be wary of a strong air freshener smell, which could very well be covering up something.

Check the bolts: Seats often have to be taken out in order to remove the carpet for cleaning and drying. Inspect the bolts used to secure the front seat mounts to see if they are loosened or rusty.

Go deep: Look for scum lines or silt in areas you usually wouldn’t check. The dashboard and glove box are spots often overlooked during flood detailing. Sometimes there is still moisture and muck underneath the mat or spare tire, so check there too.

Look for corrosion: See if the chassis and suspension has any signs of rust or other corrosion that doesn’t seem normal for the car’s location or mileage.

For MSN Auto’s complete list on how to spot flood damaged cars, click here.