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How to Avoid Buying a Flood Car

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A car or truck that’s been deluged with water in a flood could be repaired and resold, often to unsuspecting buyers. Depending on the state laws where the car was flooded and where it’s being sold, the car’s title may have to be branded or bear notification of the damage, or it could have a general salvage title.

Unfortunately, flood-damaged cars may be retitled without the notification. Depending on the extent of damage from the flood, a car with water damage could turn out to be a real lemon. The good news is there are steps you can take to avoid buying a “flood car” and being taken for a ride.

Four steps to avoid buying a flood car
Is it ever worth buying a car with a salvage title?
Is a flood-damaged car repairable?

4 steps to avoid buying a flood car

For most people, purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle is a bad idea. Water will damage electronics, the engine, brakes and other components in a car.

Flood-damaged cars can wind up on the market in several ways. A private seller may offer the car after it’s dried out. Dealers may buy vehicles at auctions or salvage yards to resell them. The cars may change hands and be titled in several states, so the salvage or flood title status could get lost.

1. Find a trustworthy seller

Find a car dealer you trust, perhaps one that’s been in business in your area for several years. Reputable dealers don’t want to sell damaged cars and deal with unhappy customers.

“With private sellers or independent dealerships, it’s a little more difficult to see what they’re up to because … there’s so much variation in quality in the operations from one independent dealership to the next,” said Ronald Montoya, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds. You may have more confidence in buying a used car from a new car dealer’s lot, or a used car dealer that has positive reviews and been in business for a few years.

2. Get a vehicle history report

If you suspect flood damage, or just want to know the history of a used car, get a vehicle history report.

Begin your research at the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. There you’ll find links to companies that provide vehicle history reports for a fee. Current fees range from about $3 to $13 per report. Such reports have additional information, like accident and repair history. AutoCheck is another fee-based provider of auto history information. Don’t feel like paying a fee? A Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) check will give you basic information about the car and its history.

For flood damage information, visit the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s free database, which lists flood damage and other information for cars that were insured. You can search up to five cars per day. Also, Carfax offers a free flood check.

Don’t skip this step.

“The car history databases are one of the best ways for consumers to protect themselves,” said Carrie Leitner of the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. “It’s a good idea to pull a vehicle history report, regardless of whether you think it’s a flooded vehicle or not, in order to see what the status of the car is prior to purchasing it.”

Illinois lists areas that were hit with hurricanes or natural disasters so you can identify if a car came from one of those towns. You can check with your own Secretary of State to see what protections it provides.

3. Check the car’s title

Ideally, the car’s title history will be accurate. Some states require a separate flood brand notification. Others classify a flood-damaged vehicle only with a salvage title. That means the flood damage may not be revealed in the title.

Types of titles

It’s important to understand the different types of titles that a vehicle can have.

  • A salvage title means an insurance company declared the car a total loss because it suffered damage amounting to a significant portion of the car’s value. Salvage cars can be sold, repaired and put back into service, but the title must always indicate the salvage or rebuilt designation.
  • A flood-branded title A flood-branded title is usually issued when the car sits in water high enough to fill the engine compartment, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). States also set their own standard.
  • A rebuilt title is when a salvage vehicle has been inspected and cleared for resale.

You can find the title status in the vehicle history report, provided that the car was reported as flooded or damaged and properly insured at the time.  If a car wasn’t insured at the time of the flood, or the damage didn’t exceed a certain amount, it may not end up with a salvage or flood-branded title.

In Illinois, for example, the standard for a flood-branded title is if the rising water has reached over the door sill and entered the passenger or trunk compartment and the cost of repairing the damage, including labor, exceeds one-third of the fair market value of the car.

Be wary of cars sold with a “lost” title or bill of sale only. The seller could be trying to hide a flood-branded or salvage title.

4. Thoroughly inspect the car

As with any used car purchase, having a mechanic examine it before purchasing it, is a good idea. Ask the mechanic to check the mechanical and electrical components and all fluids for signs of water contamination.

The FTC recommends looking for these signs to see if a vehicle has been partially submerged to avoid buying a flood car. Look for:

  • Water stains in the carpet and interior, or signs of water sitting like a ring around a bathtub.
  • A moldy smell, or the odors of carpet cleaner or disinfectant in an attempt to get rid of the musty smell.
  • Damp carpet or upholstery backing
  • Sand or silt under the carpets and in the suspension or underside of the car.
  • Water droplets or fogging in the lights or dashboard instruments
  • Rust on the pedals, under the dashboard, hood and trunk latches and around doors.
  • Evidence of water in the spare tire well in the trunk.
  • Rusty or stiff wiring. Electrical issues can be hard to spot, as corrosion of wiring and connectors can take time.
  • Debris and dirt in the engine bay.
  • Non-working radio and other accessories.
  • Water in the oil, transmission fluid or other fluids.
  • Salt or freshwater flooding. Saltwater is more damaging to metal and electronic components, and can cause corrosion.

Also, ask the seller if the car has ever been in a flood or damaged in an accident. If the seller can’t or won’t answer your questions or something doesn’t seem right in their response, move on. There are plenty of other cars on the market that haven’t gone for a swim.

Is it ever worth buying a car with a salvage title?

If you’re handy with cars and have some idea of what you’re getting into, it may be worth buying a vehicle with a salvage title. Ronald Montoya once bought a salvage title car that had been in an accident and drove it for 12 years. As long as you know what problems you might be purchasing, a salvage title doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. But if you have any doubts, keep looking.

“If you just want to avoid a problem, if you see that a car has a salvage title, just resume your search and find something else,” Montoya said.

Is a flood-damaged car repairable?

Yes, a flooded car may be able to be repaired and returned to use. A flooded car can be redone with new carpet and upholstery. The engine can be drained and filled with fresh oil. Electrical problems are one of the big issues that show up after a car has been flooded. Annoying gremlins can pop up as the corrosion attacks the electrical system. It can be hard to track down a relay with a rusty connector. A flooded car may run OK for a while but could develop hard-to-spot problems down the road, so it’s probably best to avoid buying a flood car when possible.

What exactly happens to a car after it’s flooded?

When a car that’s covered by appropriate insurance is flooded, the insurance company pays the owner and takes possession of the vehicle. Badly-damaged cars are sent to a salvage yard for dismantling and recycling. The rest are assigned a salvage or flood title and can enter the used car market via a salvage car auction. They can then turn up on used car lots and at other sales.

Title washing

Through a process called title washing, the flood damage can be hidden from buyers. Title washing is used by unscrupulous sellers to remove the flood or salvage brand from the title by retitling the car in a state that may have less strict requirements. For example, some states require a car to be damaged at 100% of its value before it’s considered totaled, and some states, as we mentioned earlier, don’t have a flood brand for titles at all. Or, a seller may apply for a new title without disclosing the flood damage. These are ways in which an unsuspecting buyer could wind up buying a flood car.

State protections

To prevent title washing, a number of states have put certain protections into place. For example, Illinois runs a title history report on every car brought into the state within one year of a federal disaster area declaration. If a vehicle was originally issued a salvage or flood title at some point, Illinois would issue the same type of title.


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