Beware of Flood Damaged Cars

by Ryan Guina

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into the Houston area. Most of them left Louisiana with very little and their arrival increased the demand on housing, used cars, and other goods. The desperation of the situation was a breeding ground for thieves and tricksters who descended on the area with all variety of scams – including shipping in flood damaged cars and selling them without disclosure of their history. The market was soon overrun with flood damaged cars. Many of these cars were also trucked across the country where they were given clean titles in other states and sold to unsuspecting customers.

I bought a new car in Houston, TX a few months after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf region. I would normally buy a used car in order to save money, but used cars were commanding steep premiums. It got so bad that many late model used cars were commanding prices almost in line with new cars. I also didn’t want to take a chance at buying a flood damaged car.

With Hurricane Ike such a recent occurrence, flooded cars are sure to come into the market soon – and quite possibly to your area, even if you live thousands of miles away.

How to spot a flood damaged car

If a car is thoroughly scrubbed, it can be difficult to determine at first glance whether or not a car has flood damage. So you need to be diligent with your inspection, otherwise you may buy a car that will have a multitude of problems and potentially cost you thousands of dollars in repairs – if it can be repaired.

Exterior. There usually aren’t many exterior clues that a car has flood damage because the outside of a car is remarkably easy to clean. Here you want to look at areas such as the headlights and taillights and check for signs of moisture or silt that may have seeped in while the car was submerged. Another clue could be a brand new paint job on an older vehicle, though this is not a telltale sign.

Interior. Does the car smell musty? A mildewy odor could be a sign of flood damage. While looking at the interior of the vehicle, be sure to check the carpets, seats, under the seats, and the glove box for unusual signs of silt or rust. Mismatched items or new items in an older car could mean those items were recently replaced. Also be sure to check for moisture or silt in dome lights or on the instrument panel.

Trunk. Many used car shoppers might give the trunk a cursory glance to make it is large enough, then move on. But if you suspect the car might have flood damage, look a t the trunk a little more closely. Again, you want to look for signs of water damage, silt, rust, or mismatched carpeting.

Engine bay and under the car. If the engine was submerged, you may see rust, silt, discoloration, or other visible damage to wiring or components. Look underneath the vehicle for large scale rust. Turn the engine on and listen to it. Finally, check all the engine fluids for sings of water or other contamination.

Check out he car’s functionality. Turn on the engine and test everything – lights, blinkers, wipers, AC, heater, radio, aux power jack, windows, defroster, etc. The electrical items and associated components are often the first to go after flood damage. After checking all of these, go for a drive. Pay attention to acceleration, the feel and sound of the idling engine, and the car’s power.

Take your car to a mechanic. A mechanic can do a much more thorough inspection than you can and should be able to give you an idea of whether or not a vehicle has been damaged by flood waters.

Get a CarFax report. A CarFax report can give you a lot of information about a vehicle’s history and it is worth taking a look at it. It cannot give you every bit information about a car, so be sure to check beyond the Carfax report before making a purchase.

Flood damaged cars are not limited to flood zones

Even though you may live thousands of miles from the coast, you could still get scammed into buying a car that was damaged by a hurricane. After Hurricane Katrina flood damaged cars showed up as far away as California, Arizona, and places in the Midwest. It is very easy to load up a car transport with insurance write-offs and transport those cars to a state that doesn’t report flood damage or a salvage label on the title. There are currently almost 20 states that do not report either designation on the title. Is your state one of them?

Here is another source for additional information: Flood damage to cars.

Published or updated February 27, 2011.
Print or e-mail this article:

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Carfax Heather

Thanks for recommending Carfax. In addition to getting the vehicle history report, it’s a good idea to also have a vehicle inspected and take a test drive before you buy.


2 fathersez

This article is useful for us Malaysians. We have had some bad floods these past 3 years or so in certain parts of the country.

Followed up with fire sales of all kinds of water damaged stuff including cars.

Knowing how to spot and handle a flood damaged car would be useful.



Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: