When you're shopping for a used car, the last worry that might cross your mind is whether or not the car you're considering has ever been damaged in a flood. Yet each year, thousands of cars that never should be resold make it out onto the streets again, often to unwitting buyers.
Despite what you may have heard, it's possible for flood-damaged cars to be sold without "flood" appearing on the title. Some states allow "rebuilt" or "salvage" to appear, and unscrupulous sellers launder branded titles by repeatedly transferring ownership from state-to-state and retitling the car until the warning is lost.
That's a problem because flood-damaged cars are unsafe. Water compromises onboard computer systems and wiring, damaging everything from airbag components to dashboard displays.
You can protect yourself by checking for signs of flood damage:
- Look for mud and debris on the on brackets or panels where it couldn't naturally settle. Also look for a water line on the interior of the car.
- Flex wires under the dashboard to see if they bend or crack. Wet wires become brittle after drying and are prone to failure.
- Turn on the lights and look closely. They may still show evidence of a water line on lenses.
- Check all electrical systems.
- See if dashboard warning lights are on. If so, find out why.
- Check for stained or discolored seats, upholstery, carpeting or door panels.
- Pay attention to musty odors. If carpeting doesn't match the interior or fits loosely, it may have been replaced.
- Check rubber drain plugs under the car and on the bottoms of doors for evidence that they may have been removed.
- Check for corrosion in the car's undercarriage: on brakelines, around the fuel tank, on springs or shock towers - all potential signs of flood damage.
- Insist on a pre-purchase inspection by your own mechanic. He or she can perform tests and spot signs of water damage that may not be apparent to you. That might include popping off a door panel to check for a water line.
To further put your mind at ease, request a CARFAX or AutoCheck vehicle history report if you're buying from a dealer (you also can purchase the reports yourself). Both services offer free flood damage checks. These reports can be helpful because insurance companies, including PEMCO, report the Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) of all flood-damaged cars they've declared total losses.