Beware of Flood Damaged Used Cars

by Don Elliott on June 23, 2011

Spring floods renew concerns that vehicles caught in rising waters will be sold to unsuspecting buyers hoping to get a good used car value. Water damaged cars may be inexpensive, but they probably aren’t a good buy unless you know how to evaluate the car’s problems and used car value.

Cars are made to handle a considerable amount of water. Problems occur when the water is high enough to get inside the interior of the car, into the engine, or under the dashboard. Electronic parts, including the engine’s computer, don’t even need to be immersed in water to have detrimental effects. Just a small amount of moisture will prevent them from ever performing correctly again. Moisture causes the electrical wiring to become brittle. This will cause electrical shorts and blown fuses as the car ages. Carpeting and seats hold water and may become moldy, if not properly dried.

Saltwater is particularly harmful to a cars more delicate parts. Saltwater damaged cars often have accelerated corrosion. This destroys electrical connections and causes rust on the car.

There are several signs that a car may have been water damaged.

  • Mud, silt, and rust are present on seat brackets, in the truck, around the glove box, or on the underside of the dash
  • Rust, moisture, and unusual muddy residue are found in the spare tire well and under the spare tire
  • Condensation in the headlights and taillights
  • The used car has a musty odor
  • Discolored or badly fitting carpets and seat covers
  • Non-working electrical components with brittle or cracked wires
  • Sagging headliner

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NCIB) offers a free service called VINCheck. This service checks Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) against their database of NCIB member insurance companies for stolen, salvage or damaged vehicles. While the service does not cover all used cars that may have been in a flood, it is a good place to start checking for cars with a flood damage claim filed.

Don’t assume that flood damaged cars are only sold in the area of a flood event. It is estimated that over 600,000 vehicles were water damaged in the 2005 hurricane season. Many of those cars were sold to unsuspecting buyers all over the country, some with only minor damage. Others shouldn’t have been put back on the street.

A qualified auto repair mechanic can check a car and uncover most flood-related problems. Another good idea is to request a vehicle history report. The vehicle history report will show insurance claims, where the car was titled, service and repair records, police reports, and changes of ownership. Nineteen states don’t record flood damage on the title. Unscrupulous sellers might title a car in one of those states to avoid loss of used car value due to water damage.

The best advice would be to walk away from any car that has signs of water and mud residue inside the passenger area, under the dash, or high up under the hood. The selling price may be cheap, but water damage doesn’t go away.

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