While a devastating storm brings countless damages to homes and cities, one of the often overlooked consequences is the increase in water-damaged cars. Post-hurricane season, especially now, after three major storms have blown through Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, the used-car market will be overloaded with flood-injured vehicles. Scammers may begin dumping damaged cars at used-car shops as early as a few days within the storm’s end and particularly savvy sellers will know to move affected vehicles to more distant states, retitling the cars to avoid suspicion. Whether you live in a flood-affected area or a state hundreds of miles away, you could be at risk of buying a bad car.
Floods can ruin a vehicle in multiple ways from destroying the electronic wiring to its mechanical systems but what’s tricky is predicting when the damage will hit- sometimes it may not reveal itself for months or even years. Corrosion and rust take their time, often eating away at things from the inside out, so you could be in the dark about any issues until it’s too late. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, reports claim anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million cars were damaged (double the number of vehicles caused by Katrina). So if you’re in the market for a used car, take caution (everywhere in the country!) by following a few of these guidelines.
1. Look at the car’s record, known as its “vehicle history report.” Most states require that cars include any flood-damage. You can check by looking at the car’s vehicle identification number on the driver’s side of the dashboard and looking up its history on either the National Insurance Crime Bureau, CarFax or the National Motor Vehicle Title Information Center. This is an easy way to check for damage- as long as the seller is being honest.
2. Inspect for dirt and mud stains in hard to clean places like under the dash and trunk.
3. Look for any mold or musty scent in the upholstery carpet or trunk. If it smells like mildew, it could have recently been submerged in water.
4. Check to see if the carpeting or seat covers are new, or if they’ve been recently shampooed: this could be an effort to cover obvious damage.
5. Open the ashtrays, glove boxes and other compartments to see if there’s any flood water or stains left behind.
6. Turn on all possible power options like windows, locks, wipers and the AC to make sure they’re functioning correctly.
7. Listen for a weird crunching sound when you adjust the seats forward and back: this could be from dirt or sand that made it inside the car from the storm.
8. Check for rust and corrosion, especially in areas that water would normally not reached unless the vehicle were fully submerged. Rust found on exposed screws under the hood, around the doors or in the drunk are also indicators of excessive moisture.
9. Always just take the car for a test drive to check for any funky noises or erratic shifting and acceleration.
The biggest risk from water submersion is not the water itself, but the contaminants often found in hurricane specific water, which brings a high level of bacteria into a car. Affected airbags can be beyond repair and the moisture damage can be long-lasting. If you have suspicions that a car has flood-damage, it’s best to walk away, especially if the deal seems too good to be true. If you are feeling unsure, just spend the extra money to have a mechanic give the car a once over and put you at ease.