BUYER’S GUIDE: How to Avoid Buying a Flood-Damaged Car

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Sometimes water is good for your car. It’s used to regulate engine temperatures and a bucket of water and some soap will do wonders for keeping your car looking good as new. A flood, however, is a different story.

Cars caught up in floods are always the money shot on the evening news. There are pictures of cars floating down swollen rivers or sitting in parking lots half submerged in murky water. Those cars are in trouble.

Most of them will end up being reported to insurance agencies when the waters subside and owners file claims. The insurance company will decide whether the vehicle can be salvaged and end up declaring many a total loss.

The cars that are a loss will then find their way to companies in the business of handling flood-damaged vehicles. They process these cars and retitle them through the DMV with a new title that clearly indicates the vehicle was flood damaged.

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It can be then sold to salvage companies that re-sell any parts that are still good or may even find its way back into the marketplace after it’s been completely refurbished. Yes, flood damages cars are legally sold, but that new title lets owners know what they’re getting and makes it okay.

Unfortunately, not all flood-damaged cars go through the proper channels. If a car isn’t insured or if an owner continues to drive a car with minor damage with plans to sell it someday, then its true history isn’t known.

These cars can end up being resold weeks or months after major floods with buyers none the wiser. An unsuspecting buyer might not even be thinking about flood damage when they’re purchasing a car long after a major flood made the news.

Here’s how you can avoid accidentally purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle.

Get a Vehicle History Report

No matter where you choose to buy a car, you can still get some assurances that you’re not buying one that’s been flood-damaged. You can get a vehicle history report on any car to see if everything is as expected.

A vehicle history report will turn up information about whether the car you’re interested in has ever been a total loss, either from an accident or a flood. If it has, it will have a salvage title. If it has one of those, unless you’re buying it at a steep discount (read: almost free) you’re wise to walk away.

Dealerships often provide vehicle history reports as part of their marketing services on the cars they sell, but if they don’t, or you’re buying from a private property, you’ll have to pay for the service.

Use a Reputable Seller

A well-established dealership is one of the best ways to avoid buying a flood-damaged vehicle. They’re not looking to make a quick buck but are in it for the long run. Buying from a dealership that’s been in business for decades means there’s a good chance they’re following the law.

This doesn’t mean you are completely stuck going with only a dealership that’s been around since you were a kid. Most dealers will provide you a report from a reputable source detailing a car’s history. That’s your second level of assurance that you’re not being duped.

This is also a great time to ask friends for recommendations. We are all very vocal about our bad buying experiences. If you ask around and get lots of negative feedback about a specific dealership, then it’s a good idea to consider shopping elsewhere.


NICB Damaged Vehicles

Check Out the Interior

It might look just fine at first glance, but a closer inspection can reveal hidden evidence that your car spent some time in the water. Let the car sit for a few minutes and then take a whiff when you open the door. If it smells moldy or mildewy, then there may be a problem.

Oddly, the same goes if the car smells too much like air freshener. There’s nothing wrong with a little pine tree freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, but if the smell is overwhelming, then the seller could be trying to hide worse odors.

Look for blotchy stains. Water will leave marks, but so can simply having a kid in the car, so don’t go overboard. Look at all the surfaces and if there are too many stains that seem to indicate water damage, then there might be trouble.

Also, look for corrosion. A great spot to check for this is under the seat where there are springs and metal parts that are hard to see and very susceptible to water damage. Sometimes painted metal surfaces will bubble from rust underneath. This is another warning sign that all is not as it appeared at first glance.

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Look Under the Hood

Take a good look under the hood and see if there are signs of water damage. This area gets wet and dirty even without a flood, but leaves or dirt in the engine’s nooks and crannies is a warning.

This requires real investigative work and your judgement. We’ve all parked under a tree that dropped leaves everywhere and driven down dirt roads. It’s okay for the engine to be dirty, but if sand is piled everywhere, then that’s cause for concern.

Take a Test Drive

This applies to any vehicle you buy whether it’s new or used. You simply never know what a car is going to be like until you get behind the wheel and take a test drive. It can also help you root out a car that has water damage.

Electrical systems fare particularly poorly when they go for a swim. Try the wipers, headlights, high beams, and turn signals to make sure they all work. Anything that can be turned off an on should be checked out. If many of these components don’t work properly, then water damage could be the culprit.

Turn on the radio, too. If the speakers sound distorted, then that’s another indicator that the car has water damage. A single speaker can easily blow without water, but a faulty audio system is a good reason to ask the seller some questions and give the car a closer look.

Check wih a Mechanic

A seller who has nothing to hide will have no problem with you taking the car to a reputable, trusted mechanic for an inspection. Mechanics know exactly what they’re looking for and are more likely to notice signs of flood damage.

Even if the seller has a report from their mechanic, you don’t know that guy and you have no idea if he’s trustworthy. Take the car to someone you trust and have them look everything over.

Especially if you are suspicious about water damage, a mechanic may be able to give you a quick answer. There’s often a charge for an inspection like this, but it’s far easier to pay for an expert opinion than to guess on your own and make a rookie mistake.

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