How to Detect Flood Damage in Used Cars
Purchasing a used car can be a tricky proposition due to the potential for unseen damage or wear and tear. When you’re purchasing a car in an area prone to flooding, you have the additional issue of possible flood damage with which to contend. A car submerged in the flood is not automatically one you should not buy, but any signs of flood damage should be a red flag to have a vehicle thoroughly inspected by a certified mechanic before purchasing it.
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For most of us, the idea of flood damage to a used vehicle wasn’t something we thought of prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But, as Virginia’s Motor Vehicle Dealer Board explains, the storm and its aftermath opened the door for multitudes of flood-damaged cars to end up on the used car market. With so many homeowners declaring their vehicles a total loss, insurance companies were selling the damaged vehicles to salvage yards or repair shops–some were even allowing customers to dispose of the vehicles themselves.
Ask to See the Title
If you’re purchasing a used vehicle from a dealer or salvage yard, one of the first things you need to do is ask to see the title. Most states require titles of flood damaged cars to be marked either as “salvage” or “wreck.” Other similar terms might be used, but the idea is the same. The state of Nebraska clearly explains the process of salvage titles in that state on its DMV website.
If you see a title designated as such, you need to ask for the reasons why as well as documentation outlining what repairs were made and when. It’s obviously possible for these documents to be less than factual, but a salvage yard or car dealer is risking its business license if representatives provide you with inaccurate information.
If the documentation states generically that flood repairs were made, insist on more details.
Pay Attention to Your Nose
When you first approach a used vehicle for your initial inspection, note whether or not the windows are open, either fully or partially. When you open the door, take note of any odors before you stick your head in the vehicle, then take note again once you’re inside. You’re checking for any mustiness or excessive air freshener smell. Both could be signs of flood damage.
It’s normal for older cars to smell somewhat musty, but the odor should not be overpowering. If it is, it’s possible that the carpeting and upholstery were submerged in water at one time. The seller may try to mask those odors by applying heavy colognes or perfumes, or hiding multiple car air fresheners under the seats, under the dashboard, in the ceiling panels, and so on.
As an interesting side note, sellers trying to mask the musty odors often forget about the trunk. If there’s even a hint of mustiness in the car’s interior be sure to pop the trunk and take a good whiff inside. If there is a wheel well where the spare tire is stored you should also crack that open and check for rust or possible flood debris.
Feel Carpets and Upholstery
The next thing you should do is actually feel the carpets and upholstery by pressing down firmly with the palm of your hand. A salvage yard or dealer will probably make sure a vehicle is baked dry before trying to sell it, but a private owner may not think of this.
When you press down on the carpets and upholstery, you’re hoping not to feel any moisture deep within the materials.
If you do, it’s possible what you’re feeling is the result of flood damage. With upholstery and seat cushions this is especially important because it could take months, or even years, for them to completely dry out.
When you’re feeling the carpets, you might make a point of pressing firmly on the floor boards in front of the pedals and on the front passenger side. Even if the car hasn’t sustained any flood damage, these two areas are considered weak points for rusted floorboards. If the floorboards give at all, you may have to climb under the car to check the condition of the underlying sheet metal.
Look for High Water Marks
Consumer Reports Magazine suggests customers look for water lines typically left by mud and other contaminants in floodwaters.
At the same time, Popular Mechanics notes that water lines are not always visible if the floodwaters were somewhat clean. In either case, high water marks may appear on headlight lenses, trim or metal bumpers, and interior upholstery.
One of the best places to look for high water marks is the lenses of all the vehicle’s exterior lights. Lenses are expensive to replace to the extent that, unless the seller believes customers will be looking at them, they won’t bother spending the money. During daylight hours, water marks on the lenses should be clearly visible except for those that are red. In that case, or after the sun goes down, you can check for water marks simply by turning the lights on and observing.
Check for Rust, Mud, and Debris
If you’ve ever sold a vehicle you’ve owned for more than seven or eight years, you know how difficult it can be to clean all the dirt out of every nook and cranny. How much more when you’re dealing with flood damage?
Look for mud and debris around the door hinges, where the interior molding meets the carpeting, on the underside where brackets join the side rails or other parts, and so on.
Unless a seller has meticulously gone over every inch of a vehicle with microscopic accuracy, it’s virtually impossible to erase all signs of flood damage left by mud, rust, and debris.
Along the same lines, you might also lift up a section of the carpeting and take a look under there as well.
Check for Unusual New Parts
There are some parts in our cars that 99.9% of us will never replace; the instrument cluster is but one example. A new instrument cluster is a good sign that something significant was done to the vehicle, whether due to electrical problems or flood damage. But either way, brand-new parts that look out of place should be red flags to say the least.
Check with the NCIB
According to the National Association of Attorneys General, the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) maintains a database of vehicles that were totaled after suffering flood damage. The information is gathered from insurance companies, car dealers, salvage yards, and others who might be dealing with flood-damaged vehicles. By visiting the NICB website, you can check out vehicles with nothing more than the vehicle identification number (VIN).
The National Association of Attorneys General warns that the NICB database does not give details about the type or extent of the damage on any given vehicle, just that some damage was reported. But this is helpful if a dealer or salvage yard is trying to sell you a car they claim hasn’t suffered any major damage. You can take an NICB report with you and demand a detailed explanation.
When you’re purchasing from a dealer, especially one whose independent and not associated with any particular manufacturer, it is entirely possible for them to be selling flood-damaged cars without their knowledge. If they purchased vehicles from a salvage or repair shop that failed to report the damage, that dealer may be ignorant.
Ignorance doesn’t excuse the action, but there may be no purposeful intent to defraud you on the part of the dealer. That’s why tools like the NICB database are so valuable.
Purchasing from Private Owners
If you suspect a private owner is attempting to sell you a vehicle that has seen significant flood damage, it’s best to stay away from it altogether.
While private owners are required to be upfront and honest about their vehicles in most states, the various laws are not enforceable from a practical standpoint.
If you end up buying a lemon from a private owner you could spend more money in small claims court that it’s actually worth. By the way, the same is true regarding all issues of the quality of a used vehicle.
The advantage of buying from a salvage yard or dealer is that most states require salvaged or wrecked vehicles to undergo a thorough and vigorous inspection before they can be resold to the general public. If a salvage yard or dealer fails to disclose water damage at the time of inspection, and still manages to get away with it, you would have legal recourse in the event that you found flood damage later on. You could recover the cost of the vehicle, repair costs, and any damages as well.
It goes without saying that flood-damaged cars are a risky investment. Buyers need to be very aware and check any used vehicle for flood damage prior to purchasing it. As they say, better safe than sorry.
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