Beware of Flood-Damaged Vehicles After a Natural Disaster

Alicia Wagner Calzada/Getty Images News

Alicia Wagner Calzada/Getty Images News

Thanks to last month’s torrential rainstorms, flooding put Texas in a state of emergency. The devastation caused by those floods has been well-covered by the media, but what’s gotten less coverage is the large number of cars damaged by the floods as well. Automotive News is reporting that as many as 10,000 vehicles may have been damaged, and many could end up moved out of state and sold to unsuspecting buyers.

So far, at least 2,500 vehicles have been towed to a facility run by Copart, Inc., a company that works with insurers to salvage and resell damaged vehicles. While flood-damaged vehicles are usually sold for parts, they sometimes end up being sold by used car dealers with questionable morals or curbstoners on Craigslist. There’s no reason to worry about new cars being sold around Texas, but over the next few months, used car buyers need to be extra vigilant to avoid buying flood-damaged cars.

In general, if a deal is too good to be true, there’s probably something wrong with what you’re buying, and that’s especially true with salvaged cars. At some point, an insurance company looked at what it would take to fix what was wrong and decided the car was too far gone to be worth the effort.

For dealers looking to take advantage of their customers, those kinds of vehicles are perfect for pricing low and still making a huge profit. After all, it doesn’t take much effort to clean a car up, let the floor mats sit in the sun for a few hours, crack the windows, and throw in a complimentary air freshener. No one will notice the smell of mildew until they get the car home and find out they’ve been snookered.

Mildew is actually one of the least problematic parts of buying a flood-damaged car, though, and it’s possible to dry a car out and prevent mold and mildew. Depending on how long it was underwater and how deeply it was submerged, rust can set in, as can electrical problems. Those issues might not present themselves immediately, but a year or two down the road, you could find yourself with a maintenance nightmare on your hands.

JAMES NIELSEN/AFP/Getty Images

JAMES NIELSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Unfortunately, the floods in Texas aren’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. It was widespread after Hurricane Katrina, and there’s a serious risk of it after every major flooding event. How do you spot a flood-damaged car? Edmunds offers five tips.

First, beware of any unusual odors. The most obvious would be a musty smell coming from somewhere the dealer can’t get to in order to clean. It’s also just as suspicious if the car smells strongly like an air freshener. Whatever the dealer is trying to cover up with an overwhelmingly clean smell, it can’t be good. It’s also important to test out the air conditioner to see if the air coming out of the vents smells moldy.

Second, look for discolorations or inconsistencies in the carpeting and upholstery. If the car spent time sitting in water, there will either be large stains or changes in color. Then again, a shady seller may really be trying to pull on over on you and could have installed brand new upholstery to cover up the evidence that the car had been underwater. If a car’s interior is far too new for its age, consider that a red flag.

Third, look for water build up on the exterior of the car. A vehicle that’s been underwater is likely to have fogged up headlights and tail lights, and it may even have mud or debris accumulated in areas like the wheel wells. There may also still be a water line in the engine bay where you can see how far submerged the car was.

Fourth, a fairly new car shouldn’t be rusting already. If you look under the car and see rust or flaking metal, be extremely cautious. Even if it hasn’t been flood-damaged, a new car that’s already rusting has “maintenance nightmare” written all over it.

Lastly, check for areas with unusual amounts of dirt. There’s no good reason for a significant amount of dirt to be in the seat tracks, in the glove box, or in the switchgear, or under the bottom of plastic door panels. If you find a good bit of dirt in these areas, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a flood-damaged vehicle.

It’s also a good idea, no matter how confident you are in your car inspection skills, to take any used car to a mechanic for a professional inspection before you agree to buy it. Any honest seller won’t have a problem letting you do so, and if someone balks at that request, run away no matter how much you think you like the car. There’s something wrong with it that the seller is trying to hide.

Finally, if you suspect a dealer is misrepresenting flood-damaged or salvaged vehicles as regular used cars, contact your insurance company, law enforcement or the National Insurance Crime Bureau. It’s unfortunate that dishonest sellers try to pass off damaged vehicles as legitimate, but hopefully greater awareness can lead to fewer unsuspecting car buyers being taken advantage of.

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