Goodbye Hurricane Ian, hello flooded vehicle rip-offs.

Photo (c) Chris Sadowski - Getty Images

Experts weigh in on how to avoid a car that's been under water

With Hurricane Ian barely in America’s rearview mirror, consumer watchdogs are warning people that buying a car damaged in a flood may be a good deal price-wise, but it could set a buyer back even more repairing things that aren’t physically evident.

When Hurricane Ida tore through the east coast, last year, CarFax estimated that its flood waters damaged as many as 212,000 cars. It’s anyone’s guess as to how many of those vehicles ended up for sale without the seller disclosing the flood damage, but it’s a safe bet someone somewhere got bamboozled.

“Flood waters cause all sorts of hidden damage which can surface months later and turn a good car into a nearly worthless heap of junk,” said Teresa Murray, Consumer Watchdog with U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Murray says prospective buyers should stay away from any flood-damaged vehicle, no matter whether the damage is disclosed and no matter what assurances they get from a seller.

"If you suspect a vehicle may have sustained flood damage, move on. Don’t be tempted to chance it. If you buy a flood-damaged vehicle, you’ll almost surely be buying a headache and just wasting your money.”

How to prevent being ripped off

How can prospective buyers beat an unsavory flooded vehicle seller at their own game? U.S. PIRG Education Fund has compiled a list of tips that could help. Here they are:

  • Look up a vehicle’s history by running the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) through a free database, such as the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VINCheck. Carfax also offers a free flood check of the car’s VIN.

  • Inspect the car for clues such as sand under the floor mats, moisture in the headlights, or signs of discoloration or residue around metal screws or bolts. When an unscrupulous seller cleans a car thoroughly, flood damage may not be obvious.

  • Have the vehicle professionally inspected by a mechanic you trust. You should do this with any used vehicle you’re ever considering buying. 

  • For further explanations about how to spot a salvage title and more helpful tips, go to the guide: How to avoid used cars with flood damage.

Wait – can’t ​​a flooded car be fixed?

“I know a guy who knows a guy who can fix anything on a car” may be a good reference for things like repairing a timing belt, but when it comes to flooded vehicles, it’s more of a “Maybe, maybe not.” According to Progressive’s website, “minor flooding that’s quickly drained can often be repaired.” The keyword there is “minor.”

But in instances where the flood level reaches the dashboard and the electronic components, insurance companies may write the car off as a total loss because it is, in fact, a “total loss.” Insurance companies will often do the same if a vehicle sits in water for extended periods.

“When weighing the financials, a significant factor to remember is that a car’s resale value can be severely reduced by any sign of flood damage, whether or not the car’s title or vehicle history report reflects it,” Kelley Blue Book’s Renee Valdes said.

“Given the likelihood of future problems and the eventual resale value implications, the chances of finding a diamond in the rough seem pretty slim.”

“If you don’t have insurance and find yourself paying the bill after exhausting all other options, it would be wise to get an inspection,” Valdes suggests. 

“A certified mechanic can tell you if the vehicle is repairable. If the car is beyond repair, find out how much a dismantler will pay you for the car. Remove your license plates from the vehicle before letting your car go.”

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