Are You Buying a Flood-Damaged Vehicle?

Jul 22, 2013

By Staff Writer State Farm™ Employee

A prospective used car buyer usually has questions about a vehicle's past mileage as wells as performance and repair history; but what about flood damage? Hurricanes and large storms can produce floods, which can cause irreparable damage to any car or truck that has been partially or completely submerged in water. Flood water especially salt water or water which may contain raw sewage can quickly corrode a vehicle's electrical and mechanical systems and could eventually render it nonfunctional.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) estimates that 230,000 vehicles were damaged as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Some of these vehicles were crushed and taken out of the stream of commerce, but others were retitled with a "clean title" and put back into the used-car market for resale. This process is called "title washing." And unsuspecting consumers could potentially be purchasing these flood-damaged vehicles under false pretenses. Many states have strict regulations regarding the reselling of title-washed vehicles, but sometimes unscrupulous middlemen transport them to states where the laws are more lax.

Some Warning Signs of Vehicle Flood Damage

Depending on state law, a car or truck labeled a total loss due to water damage by an insurance company may require the vehicle's title status to be "branded" as "flood". While the definition of a "flood" titled vehicle varies by state, a designation of "flood vehicle" on the title history report should alert future buyers to proceed with caution. Vehicle history reports are available (based on the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)) through many sources, including CARFAX®, AutoCheck®, VINCheck℠, and the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), which is operated by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Some telltale physical signs of vehicle flood damage include:

  • Strange odors. If the vehicle's interior has a musty or moldy smell, it may be due to the presence of mildew. Mildew may result from the vehicle being submerged for a period of time. A strong smell of air freshener or cleaning solution may indicate an attempt to cover-up the odor of mildew.
  • Moisture. Fogging in vehicle headlights, warning lights, turn signals and interior gauges could be indicators of water submersion.
  • Electrical dysfunction. Water can cause electrical switches for headlights, car stereo, climate control system, and 12v auxiliary power outlets to function erratically. Check electrical controls to make sure they are all fully functional.
  • Brittle wires and tubes. Examine inelastic wiring and tubing under the dashboard for cracks and breakage.
  • Rust. Look for rust on interior screws and bolts. Check engine compartment and undercarriage for flaking metal.
  • Discoloration. Check for evidence of a water line in the vehicle's interior. If an actual water line is not visible, look for sand and grit embedded in the vehicle's cracks and crevices.

To alleviate any doubts about a vehicle's history or reliability, take the vehicle to a trusted auto mechanic for a thorough inspection before you sign a contract.

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