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Flood Damaged Cars and How to Avoid Them

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Now that Hurricane Irma has passed through Florida and Hurricane Harvey has passed through Texas, it is a good time to discuss flood damaged cars. Both of those hurricanes caused extensive flooding in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, and nearby states. Some people have estimated that there will be over a million flood damaged cars from those states. About half of those flood damaged cars will eventually be sold on the market. Unfortunately, there are some car dealers who will conceal the water damage to those cars, and sell them without disclosing their true background and condition.

Flood damaged cars carry an increased risk of significant future problems. This is particularly true where the car has spent days or even weeks submerged or partially submerged in flood water. That water may have gotten into numerous electronic control modules and electrical wiring. This can turn up later in the form of problems with the car starting or running, electrical components not working, or even your air bag not being available to protect you in a crash. The water may have been absorbed into the carpeting, seats and other fabrics and foams throughout the car. This can cause your car to literally rot and experience significant mold growth on the inside. All of this can happen without you becoming aware of the problem until it’s too late.

There are several ways in which these flood damaged cars are later resold. Some of them are totaled by insurance companies, who can then sell them at auction as salvage cars. However, some states (including Florida) allow salvage cars to be reconditioned or rebuilt and then resold without having to be fully restored to manufacturer specifications or even fully checked out. Often, these cars are taken to a different state where the title laws are not very strict or where enforcement is lax. In other circumstances, the owners did not carry insurance, and they or a car dealer who takes it in as a trade-in vehicle simply clean the vehicle up and then resell it. In most cases, the dealerships who resell a flood damaged vehicle either actually know or should know the car was flood damaged.

There are some ways you can reduce your risk of buying a flood damaged vehicle:

  • Inspect the vehicle closely before buying it. If you smell anything musty or damp, that is a sign of trouble. If you see that the carpet, seats or other interior parts have been recently replaced, that too can be a sign of trouble. You can double-check by carefully pulling back the carpet at the edges (without damaging anything) and inspecting the back of the carpet or jute (the material under the carpet) for water stains or mold. Also, see if there if there is any rust inside or out, including the undercarriage of the car, or if there is evidence of recent painting.
  • Problems with electrical components are major issues, particularly if more than 1 is affected. Check the headlights, front and rear running lights, turn signals, and hazard lights, both for function and for signs of water intrusion. Check to make sure your cruise control, power windows, and power door locks work properly. Check the instrument cluster in the dash; normally, warning lights should come on for about 6 seconds after you start the vehicle, and then go out. If the warning lights do not come on, or if they stay on, that’s a sign of potentially serious problems.
  • Take the car to a mechanic to have it inspected. Be sure the mechanic puts it on a lift and also inspects underneath the car. They should also check major components, including those relating to safety (tires, brakes, steering, air bags, etc.) We suggest that you do not use a mechanic that works for the dealer or is located right next to the dealer, as they may prioritize the dealer’s interests over your interests. Of course, getting a mechanic to inspect a car you are interested in buying is a good idea for every used car purchase, and not just if you suspect you may be looking at a flood damaged car.
  • Check the vehicle history report to see if there is any indication of flood damage, salvage, or a sale in the affected areas soon after the hurricane and related flooding. Although these vehicle history reports are not perfect, they can provide important information. We usually recommend checking 3 different sources of reports: CarFax, AutoCheck and the federal government’s NMVTIS database.
  • Lastly, don’t rush your purchase. If you are interested in a car and do not detect any problems, come back a few days later. Sometimes, additional problems will become visible then, including odors that were initially masked and covered up by the cleaning process.

Even if the car was sold “as is”, you still have important legal rights to help you avoid being stuck with a car that was not properly disclosed to you.