Car Buying

12 tips to tell if you're buying a flood-damaged used car

They can, and do, show up on the market.

Every year, it seems a few major hurricanes batter the coast, ruining property, disrupting lives, and immersing a bunch of cars in nasty floodwater. Some of those cars are scrapped through the proper channels, but unscrupulous middlemen sometimes peddle the cars to witting or unwitting sales outlets, often without a trace of the car's soggy history. So it's always a good time to review the basics of how to avoid buying a flood-damaged used car.

First, understand that no good can come from flood damage. Cars today are rolling computer systems, laden with electronics, from engine control units to airbag circuitry to the heaters in your seats. That alone makes for serious trouble when a car has been immersed — engine, mechanical and body issues aside. It's not just windows or radios that could stop working; airbags might not deploy in a crash, putting your life at risk. And even if a car looks or performs well now, that might not be the case a year or two from now when corrosion sets in.

Second, in the age of Carfax, it's easy to assume that the marketplace could never allow flood-damaged vehicles onto the used-car market. Sadly, that's not always the case. The way the system is supposed to work: After an insurance company declares a car totaled, it gets branded with a "salvage" title, or in the case of some states, a "flood" title. It's then wholesaled, parted out, salvaged, recycled. If it's sold to a buyer, it's with clear awareness of the compromised title.

But that's not the way it always works. First, there's the matter of cars that were never insured in the first place, so they are never totaled. Second, if someone buys a branded car at auction, puts some degree of repair into it and gets it reinspected, it can gain a "rebuilt" title status. But Consumer Reports says it has found cases where flooded cars regained a clear title, aka "title washing," instates with lax regulations in that regard.

So buyer beware. Here is some advice, partly from Consumer Reports, for anyone buying a used car in the coming months:

1. Is the car from out of state?

Cars are often transported away from flood zones to areas where there is less awareness of the issue. Which is smart, right? A couple of months from now, you'll have forgotten all about the hurricanes. Carfax offers a free flood damage check, based partly on where the car has previously been registered.

2. Check the history.

Use the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System to check a vehicle's history. You can also try the National Insurance Crime Bureau's VIN Check service.

3. Get a pre-purchase inspection from a trusted mechanic.

Hire a mechanic to check out the car. The mechanic, or you, should do the following:

4. Use your nose.

Does the car pass the sniff test? Does it smell of must, mold or mildew? Or of heavy deodorant?

5. Check the carpets.

Musty? Stained? Signs they've been mud-caked? Or worse, do they look like brand-new replacements? Same goes for the upholstery. Any water stains? Go ahead, peel back some carpet in the car and in the trunk. Any sign of moisture or rust? While you're in the trunk, be sure to check the spare-tire well.

6. Look under the seats.

Check seat mounts and bolts to see if they've been wrenched. Seats are often removed in the course of drying out a car. Look at the springs under the seat (you might need a mirror). Are the springs rusty?

7. Check under the hood.

Does the crankcase oil look properly clear or dark? Or is it more the color of chocolate milk? That can be a sign of water intrusion. Does the paper air filter show a water stain? Any evidence of a water line on the firewall, inner fenders or components? Are there signs of silt in nooks and crannies of the engine compartment?

8. Inspect headlights and taillights.

Is there evidence of a past water line inside? Are they foggy? Water in the lenses isn't necessarily a sign of flooding, because sometimes the housings just leak over time. But it's one more possible sign of flooding.

9. Check gaps and crevices.

Places under the hood, or under the dashboard, or in the trunk, or along the backside of a body panel. Run your finger over hard-to-reach (and therefore hard-to-clean) places. Is there evidence of mud or silt?

10. Look for rusted fasteners.

Check screw heads and other bits of unpainted metal under the dashboard or in other hidden places for signs of rust.

11. Get underneath.

Check to see if rubber drainplugs on the underside of the car appear to have been removed.

12. Take a test drive.

Does it run well? Check to see if all electronics work. Do the stereo speakers sound right, or do they sound garbled or distorted?

And otherwise, check out Consumer Reports' Used Car Buying Guide.

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