How to avoid buying a car that’s been in a flood


Signs of water damage are hard to hide if you know where to look

It's been a summer of wild weather, from a major hurricane in Florida to floods in Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee. Lots of cars ended up under water and used car buyers better watch out – many will probably end up for sale.

With used cars already in short supply, the temptation to buy a vehicle with a questionable history may be stronger than usual. But selling a car that has been in a flood without disclosing it is illegal in most states and buying one is nothing but trouble.

According to Carfax, there are more than 450,000 flood-damaged vehicles still on the road. Carfax says these vehicles usually have mechanical defects, such as corroding metal and engine issues.

A flooded vehicle is also likely to have electrical short circuits and computer malfunctions. It can also have rusted brakes and rotors and an airbag system failure.

Red flags

Buying a car that has been in a flood for even a short time is something to avoid, but how can you tell? There are a number of red flags.

Start with the vehicle’s history by looking closely at the title. Was it recently transferred from a state that has experienced flooding? Does the title say “salvage?” If it does, it means the insurance company has written it off.

Check the interior fabrics for signs of fading or mildew. If there is a musty odor that’s a good sign of water damage. Look in the trunk and under the seats for signs of mud, rust, or water damage.

Finally, make sure all systems are in working order. Start the engine and and check all instrument panel lights to make sure they illuminate. Test the interior and exterior lights, air conditioning, windshield wipers, radio, turn signals, and heater repeatedly.

A history report could help

You can view the full Carfax Vehicle History Report to check for reported flood damage or signs of salvage title fraud. The National Insurance Crime Bureau’s (NICB) free database lists flood damage and other information, but only for vehicles that have been covered by insurance.

Thousands of consumers buy flood-damaged cars each year without knowing it. Most states have laws requiring that flood-damaged vehicles be “branded,” meaning that the damage must be disclosed to the buyer in a signed statement which must be attached to the title.  

The new title to the vehicle is then “branded” with this information.  However, there are some states that do not have brands on titles, and many totaled vehicles may be temporarily titled in states without this requirement to “wash” the titles.

If the title shows a number of recent registrations in different states, that is usually another big red flag.

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