Following recent historic Louisiana floods, and a year that has brought massive rainstorms to other parts of the country, buyers of used cars should be on the lookout for another potential financial disaster: The arrival of flooded cars to the market. Beyond the summer’s monsoons, the problem of flood-damaged vehicles comes up each time a hurricane makes landfall on the continental U.S. You simply don’t want to put one of the waterlogged vehicles into your garage.
Used car research firm Carfax estimates that more than 50 percent of the water-damaged cars are eventually resold. Flood-damaged cars are easy to spot by experts, although the damage is often easy to conceal from the untrained eye. By cleaning up the outside of a car and quickly swapping out the carpet, unethical sellers can move their problem cars onto you.
Repairing a waterlogged car is usually more difficult than simple cosmetic fixes, and unrepaired issues can affect a car’s safety, reliability, and long-term durability. Mold and mildew growing in a car’s soft materials can compromise the health of both adults and children. Waterlogged airbags might not deploy in an accident, and salt water can break down the fabric used in seatbelts, leading them to fail in an accident.
Unless you are very sure that you have identified all of the flood issues and are certain the repair work that has been undertaken has addressed all of the possible damage, it is recommended that you avoid buying a flood-damaged car, regardless of the deal you are offered.
Your first step in avoiding a flood-damaged car is to use a free online resource like the Flood Damage Check from Carfax. You can also use the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s free VINCheck, which is a more comprehensive vehicle title research system that can help identify other issues with a car’s title, in addition to any flood history.
Know that a clear title is not proof that damage hasn’t occurred. Vehicles can be moved from state to state, and their salvage titles can be cleared along the way. Just because you’re looking at a used car in Oregon doesn’t mean it has always lived there. It may have come from a flooded area of Louisiana.
With a bit of effort, you can often find the issues with the vehicle yourself, though it’s recommended that you have an independent mechanic check out any used car you are thinking of buying. Some things to be on the lookout for include:
- Stained, discolored seats, upholstery, carpeting, or door panels. If the colors don’t match from surface to surface, it might be a sign that they’ve been recently replaced. Look at how the materials fit. If it doesn’t look like it came from the factory that way, it’s a warning sign.
- Check out every electrical system. If some lights don’t work and others do, it might be a sign of a deeper problem. Infotainment systems and touch screens can be more susceptible to moisture issues than other systems, so pay special attention to their function.
- Pay attention to the lights on the dash. If there are warning lights on, they’re probably on for a reason. Don’t let a seller simply reset them; you need to understand why they were on in the first place. Airbag and anti-lock brake system faults often trigger dash lights.
- Take a flashlight and look under the dash. Is it clean? There’s really no reason for it not to be. Are any wires discolored or brittle? Shine the light under the seats. Do you see silt, mud, or evidence of recent cleaning? If you do, a warning light should go off in your head. Open the glovebox, and look for the same. Unless it was full of floodwater, the glovebox should be pristine.
- Close the windows and doors. Does it smell musty, like mold or mildew? It can be dangerous to your family’s health to be exposed to either, so the source of the odor needs to be identified and fixed before you even think of buying the car.
- Look underneath the car. Is there evidence of mud or vegetation in the recesses of the underbody?
You are more likely to find flood-damaged cars in or near the states where recent flooding occurred, but, realistically, they can be found anywhere in the country. Before you buy, you should seek an inspection from an independent, reputable mechanic who can put the car up on a lift and give it a thorough going-over.
If you’re in the market for a used car, U.S. News & World Report has an array of resources to make your shopping successful and protect your pocketbook. Check out the best used car deals available, learn how to buy a used car, and find out all you need to know aboutfinancing a used car on our site. For the latest updates and car buying advice, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.