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How to Avoid Buying a Flood Car

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Before you buy a used car, do some research to make sure you don’t accidentally buy a flood car. A car that’s been underwater is likely to suffer damage that can be hard to detect. 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 water damage, or it could have a general salvage title.

There are more than half a million flood-damaged cars on the road, according to CarFax research, so be wary of a deal that seems too good to be true or a car that’s sold on a bill of sale rather than a title.

How to spot a flood-damaged car

In most cases, buying a car with water damage is a bad idea. Water causes problems with electronics, brakes, suspension, the engine and interior components like seats and floor coverings.

You can spot a flood-damaged car by looking for telltale signs that the vehicle has been underwater to some level.

Musty odor

The smell of mildew in seats and carpets could indicate that they’ve been wet, and the heavy aroma of cleaners may be an attempt to mask that mildew smell. Sometimes, mildew can just be a sign of failing door seals, but it could indicate a greater problem. The nose knows! (A used car with all-new upholstery may also be a red flag.)

Visible signs of water

Look for water stains in the carpet and seats, fogging or droplets inside taillights, headlights or the instrument panel or a water line in the engine compartment. Examine the spare tire in the trunk and look under it for rust, debris or pooled water. Pull the seatbelts all the way out to inspect them for water and grime.

Wiring

Water can wreak havoc on a car’s electrical system. Perform a thorough check of the car’s fuse box, wiring harnesses and any other electrical components for signs of rust, corrosion or water residue. Brittle wires can also be a sign that they’ve been underwater.

If things don’t work properly, it could be a sign that the car has been underwater. Corrosion takes time, so a flood-damaged car may have even more problems lurking beneath the surface than are evident on an initial inspection.

Rust

Look under the car for rust and flaking metal on the suspension and other components. You should also check for rust on screwheads and fasteners in places where it normally wouldn’t occur, like the dashboard.

Mud or silt buildup

When the water level rises, it brings dirt along for the ride — and when it recedes, the dirt remains. Look for mud, silt or sand in places it shouldn’t be, like under the carpet or floor mats, the glove box or under the dashboard. Under the hood, the alternator, starter motor, power steering pump and wiring harnesses are also important spots to check. Be sure to inspect the difficult-to-clean places or any spots where mud wouldn’t normally settle.

4 steps to avoid buying a water-damaged car

Even if you don’t live in a flood-prone area, water-damaged vehicles can be moved several states away and their titles may not reflect that history. It’s smart to take the following steps when purchasing any used car, but they’re especially important if you suspect that the car you’re considering has been flooded.

Get a vehicle history report

Start with a vehicle history report from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. The site lists approved companies that provide vehicle history reports for a fee. The report should list accident and repair history and indicate whether the car has a flood or salvage branded title. For basic information about the car and its history, you can start with a free Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) check.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau has a free service that lists vehicles identified as stolen or reported as having a salvage title by participating insurance companies. You can search up to five VINs per day. CARFAX also offers a free flood check.

When you’re looking at vehicle history reports, be sure to understand the different types of titles, which can vary by state.

  • Salvage: An insurance company has declared the vehicle a total loss because it suffered damage amounting to a significant portion of the car’s value. The insurance company settles the claim by paying the owner for the car and then selling it at an auto auction. Some states use the “salvaged” title brand for flood-damaged cars, so be aware of the rules in your area.
  • Flood: Some states have a specific flood or water damage title brand, but the definition varies. The Federal Trade Commission declares a car to be flooded when it sits in water deep enough to fill the engine compartment, while states also set their own standards. For example, Illinois declares a car flooded if the water reaches over the door sills and enters the passenger or trunk compartment, and the cost of repair exceeds one-third the fair market value of the car.
  • Rebuilt/Revived: Even if the car is repaired and put back into service, the title must bear the salvage rebuilt brand.

Get a professional inspection

Have the vehicle inspected by an independent, certified auto technician who doesn’t have ties to the seller. It can sometimes take an expert to spot the signs of flood damage in mechanical systems, especially if the seller is trying to hide it.

Be wary of underpriced cars

Use industry guides like Kelley Blue Book (KBB) or Edmunds to determine the general market value for the car you’re looking at, including the model year, mileage, trim level and options. If a deal seems too good to be true, you could be looking at buying a flood car.

Carefully look over the car yourself and take it for a test drive. Ask the seller if you can pay to have it inspected by your choice of independent mechanic. If they’re reluctant to agree, that could be a warning sign.

You should also be wary of newer cars sold with a bill of sale instead of a title — that could be an attempt to disguise the flood damage.

Trust your gut

If you’re thinking about buying a flood car, trust your intuition. The deal may not smell right — literally.

Look over the ownership and service history for consistency. Was the car registered in a state with recent flooding? Are there gaps in the history or recent changes in the state where it’s registered? Does the owner say the title got lost and is selling a car with a bill of sale? Does the seller seem to be in a hurry?

If something doesn’t seem right, it may be safer to pass on the deal.

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

Buying a car with a salvage title can work out, if you’re fully aware of the problems and understand what’s been done to correct them. You may be able to get a functional car for less money. If you have bad credit, it may feel like it’s easier to pay cash to buy a flood car. But there are alternatives, such as a bad-credit auto loan.

Cars with a salvage title other than a flood brand may be a better bet than buying a car with water damage, which could have hidden problems. If you’re not ready to tackle the repairs or deal with the problems, it’s probably best to find another vehicle. Above all else, know what you’re getting into and make an informed decision.

Frequently asked questions

Flood cars are prone to electrical problems due to corrosion, which can take time to surface. A car that works great during the test drive could develop problems months later. It can also make a difference whether the car was flooded with fresh or salt water. Salt water from seaside areas is much more corrosive to a vehicle, causing more extensive damage.

If flood waters rise over the engine, water has probably made its way inside the engine components through the air intake system, leading to significant damage that’s often not worth repairing. If you drive a vehicle through high water, it could force water into the engine and cause engine failure.

It’s possible a flood car could wind up at a dealership through title washing, in which unscrupulous dealers fail to disclose the flood damage on a title.

 

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