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How To Avoid Getting Stuck With A Flood-Damaged Used Car

Forbes logo Forbes 8/30/2017 Jim Gorzelany, Contributor

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An estimated 500,000 cars are expected to endure flood damage from Hurricane Harvey, with perhaps half of them returning to the used-car market and sold to unsuspecting buyers. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With hurricane/tropical storm Harvey continuing to pound portions of Texas and Louisiana, the total extent of the damage is still unclear. Already, CNN estimates around 30,000 people are in or are seeking emergency shelter and nearly half a million are anticipated to ask for federal assistance. What’s more, Cox Automotive estimates that close to a half million cars will have to be scrapped due to flood damage. These include both older models and what Edmunds.com estimates could be as many as 200,000 new-inventory vehicles left underwater in storm-ravaged areas.

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In addition to the obvious damage done to upholstery and carpeting, flood water is a corrosive and abrasive mixture of water and dirt (and sometimes salt) that works its way virtually everywhere within a vehicle and can especially damaging to electronics, lubricants, and mechanical systems. Extensive disassembly may be needed for a thorough cleaning and reconditioning. Depending on its make, model and age, the cost to restore a flood-damaged vehicle could exceed its value, in which case the owner’s insurance company would consider it “totaled.”

Such vehicles are legally bound to have their titles labeled as being salvaged. They’re usually sold at auction to auto graveyards and vehicle rebuilders, and are typically scrapped and recycled, often with some components harvested and reconditioned. But as is the unfortunate case following major storms, as many as half of them are likely to be cleaned up, repaired, and sold to unsuspecting buyers, according to the title-search company CarFax. Some will be repaired and sold with titles that are clearly marked as having been “rebuilt” – in which case it’s buyer beware – but many others will carry illegally altered titles. And still more that were either not insured or weren’t damaged enough to be declared as total wrecks will be spiffed up and offered with otherwise clear titles.

As it is, CarFax says over 271,000 flood-affected cars remained on the nation’s roads last year, and that number is expected to swell considerably in Harvey’s wake. Ironically, CarFax cited Houston as being home to the most flood-damaged cars of any major city in the U.S. during 2016 with an estimated 19,314 formerly waterlogged models still being driven.

Used-car shoppers should thus be on the alert in the weeks and months ahead for water-damaged cars being offered for sale by private owners or on used-car lots that should have otherwise been relegated to the scrap heap. According to CarFax, flood-damaged cars are most likely to turn up in states affected by coastal and river flooding, though they can find their way into buyers’ hands virtually anywhere within the contiguous 48 states.

For starters, it’s critical to check the title history of any pre-owned vehicle you’re considering by running its VIN (vehicle identification number) through CarFax, Experian’s Auto Check or the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VinCheck to see if it’s been reported as having been flooded or salvaged. Numerous sources report flood and damage information to such services, including insurance companies and state Departments of Motor Vehicles. In addition, it’s always a good idea to have qualified mechanic inspect a pre-owned vehicle before signing a bill of sale, both to gauge its overall mechanical condition and to determine if it in fact has hidden water damage.

But an astute used-vehicle shopper should keep an eye out for sure signs of flooding while still in the process of “kicking the tires.” That means closely examining the vehicle’s interior and engine compartment for evidence of water and grit. Look for signs of recently shampooed or replaced carpeting or freshly cleaned upholstery that may have been performed subsequent to flooding. Pull up a corner of the carpeting (both in the passenger compartment and trunk), and check for water residue or stain marks, signs of rust, and/or evidence of mold or a musty odor. See if there’s water still hiding in the dashboard and interior storage cubbies. Check under the dashboard for brittle wiring and evidence of dried mud and other deposits; look for rust on screws in the center console or other areas that might have been submerged.

Open the hood and look for mud, water residue, or rust in crevices, behind wiring harnesses and around small recesses in and around components. Look for water or signs of condensation in the headlamps and taillights, on the instrument panel gauges, and even within the overhead dome light. And be sure to check the wheel wells, and around the doors, hood and trunk panels for evidence of rust.

If you suspect there’s been some degree of water damage, we’d suggest walking away from the deal, no matter how attractive the asking price might be. Though it may look good and start up just fine, a submerged car could be rusting away from the inside, and may take weeks or even months for some flood-caused problems to surface. Buyer beware, indeed.

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