Flood Damaged Vehicles: Know that Car’s History

Months after the latest hurricane season, government agencies, private companies, and watchdog groups are still scrambling to warn and educate consumers about flood damaged vehicles. They are a problem every year, but last year proved record breaking. As predicted, many of these vehicles are still turning up at auto auctions and used car lots across the country. They will be available and circulating in the market for years to come. Used car buyers are finding out the hard way that their chances of unknowingly purchasing what is essentially a ticking time bomb, gets greater as time passes.

Any car that has been submerged in fresh or salt water and written off by an insurance company should be labelled either a flood or salvage vehicle. Significant damage to the electrical system can be expected, though this may not always be immediately apparent. In many cases, the price for repairs will be greater than the value of the vehicle. Cost is hardly the only issue. The loss of steering, brakes or the malfunctioning of original safety equipment can be a threat to personal safety. In worst-case scenarios, a failure in any one of these areas can lead to loss of life. Relatively little water damage is needed to make these types of problems a reality.

Would you buy a used car you knew had been submerged? Most people wouldn’t. That’s why unscrupulous sellers go through more than a simple song and dance routine to hide this part of a car’s history from the general public. The majority of flood cars are simply patched up cosmetically and resold elsewhere with a “washed” title. The process can be as simple as registering in another state for the single purpose of obscuring or leaving behind a flood label from official documentation. It becomes significantly easier to pass these damaged goods on to other dealers and the eventual consumer.

Understanding what to look for and how to identify a flood car is a buyer’s best defense against becoming a victim. Checking the history, performing a thorough visual inspection, and getting a mechanic’s approval are critical safeguards.

Vehicle History

Several private companies and state agencies provide vehicle history reports that can help identify flood cars. Ask for a copy from the seller, or go online. All you need is the vehicle identification number (VIN). Scrutinize the report for flood or salvage labels. Keep in mind, not all flood damaged cars have been labelled as such. So, pay close attention to where the vehicle was previously registered. Was it in a flood or hurricane prone area? If the answer is yes, be especially diligent when visually inspecting the car for signs of water damage. Another strong warning sign is if an insurance company is listed in the history report as a previous owner.

Visual Inspection – What To Look For

Carfax, a leading provider of vehicle history reports, advises on several tell-tale signs of submersion. Begin by looking inside the trunk, glove compartment, dashboard and below the seats for sand, mud or rust. Examine upholstery and carpeting for any indication it may have been replaced. Is it off color or loose fitting? If it hasn’t been replaced, make sure there are no stains or discoloration. Next, verify that accessory lights, warning lights and gauges come on and work properly. Check everything electrical. Do your interior and exterior lights, windshield wipers, turn signals, cigarette lighter, radio, heater and air conditioner function?

Rust, mud and grit are the key suspects to hunt for. The National Auto Dealers Association (NADA) recommends a thorough search for rust and flaking metal. Any unusual corrosion inside, outside, and especially underneath the vehicle are reasons for concern. On the interior, look under the carpeting and check screws in the console for rust. Around the engine, look for mud and grit in small recesses and crevices. Do the same around the starter motor, power steering pump and relays.

Mechanic’s Approval

This is common sense. Have a trusted mechanic look over any vehicle you intend to purchase. If you are going to an auto auction, bring the mechanic with you. Auctions are usually the first place flood vehicles turn up.

Records Providers

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) has set up a national database for registered flood damaged cars. Consumers can run a free vehicle identification number (VIN) check through the website: nicb.org.

Additionally, Carfax.com and Autocheck.com are the leading private companies providing vehicle history reports for a small fee.

Protecting yourself and your investment takes little additional effort, but will prove to be well worth it in the long run.

(Photo: Marty Bahamonde/FEMA )

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