Don’t get duped into buying a used car that was damaged by a recent hurricane.

As many as 40,000 water-and flood-damaged cars and trucks are expected to result from flooding caused by Hurricane Florence in North and South Carolina. While the ones with minor damage will be repaired and others in worse shape will be scrapped, authorities are warning car-buyers to be on the lookout for flooded vehicles washing into the used car market.

Roughly 700,000 vehicles were damaged by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida last year. Between those storms and Florence, anyone looking for a used car should use caution to avoid buying one with hidden flood damage. And at an average cost of $19,400, a used car is a major investment for anyone trying to make a budget work.

How bad water damage can affect a vehicle

Cars swamped by hurricane rainfall are risky to buy because a flood-damaged engine is difficult to impossible to repair. While water is a great thing to have in the cooling system, it can do serious damage when sucked into valves and engine cylinders.

After that happens, the only choice may be to completely replace the engine. And while the cosmetic aspects of a waterlogged car can be cleaned, other parts may go unnoticed.

These parts will remain prone to rust from trapped water…

  • Carpet and upholstery
  • The body
  • Wiring
  • Electrical components

Water-damaged car scams

After Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast, thousands of cars were ruined in the floods that followed. Many were scrapped or sold for parts. However, at least one New Jersey dealer ran a scam where he obtained phony titles and sold the soggy cars to unwitting buyers.

The dealer and others were charged by the state attorney general and pleaded guilty. The fraud was discovered when two of the flooded vehicles broke down on their new owners shortly after leaving the dealer’s lot.

How widespread is the problem? After Hurricane Sandy, Kars4Kids, the nation’s largest car-donation charity, estimated that more than 250,000 cars were damaged by the storm and that half of them would be resold. And one insurance broker found more than 700,000 water-damaged cars after major storms between 2001 and 2008.

When you consider that the average life of a U.S. vehicle is 12 years on the road, you could easily end up with a flood-damaged car if you’re not careful.

Spotting salvaged vehicles

Typically, a flood-damaged car is reported to the insurance company and sold either for parts or as a salvaged vehicle. Cars that have suffered some major damage can be refurbished and sold with salvage titles, which can serve as a warning.

Some salvaged vehicles can be a good buy if the damage was professionally repaired after a major collision. Flood-damaged cars may not be worth the risk, though. If a car you’re considering comes with a salvage title, that’s a sign that you need to ask more questions about the nature of the damage and number of repairs made.

In some states, the title may actually indicate that the car was flood damaged. A “flood title” means the car ended up in water deep enough to fill the engine compartment.

On the other hand, private owners and unscrupulous third parties may try to hide water damage. One common tactic is called “title washing,” where the vehicle documents are forged, recreated on blank forms or re-titled in states that have different standards.

Hiding the water damage

After 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, the Carfax used-car service opened its flood damage database free to the public. Carfax collected information on flood damage to individual vehicles by vehicle identification number (VIN) from state motor vehicle departments, insurance companies and repair shops in the affected areas. Carfax estimated that there were more than 325,000 flooded cars back on the nation’s road.

Where did these cars wash up? The following is where they were spotted…

  • Houston, Texas
  • New York, New York
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Detroit, Michigan
  • Miami, Florida
  • Minnesota

A Carfax check can show the “possibility of flood damage” based on area history and a registered address for the car at the time, and whether the vehicle’s title shows a reported flood history. The National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free VIN-check service but has more limited data.

Another source to check is the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). According to Consumer Reports, this system can help identify title washing, but may not identify cars if the owner didn’t have comprehensive insurance coverage when it flooded.

Consumer Reports also notes that if “the repair bill didn’t exceed a certain level, the vehicle might not get a salvage or branded title at all.” There are only a few states that offer a “flood” title, which requires a history of any flood damage.

Tips to avoid buying a flood-damaged vehicle

Here’s how to tell if you’re being offered a vehicle that’s been in for a swim:

  • First, look at the title. Beyond the status, check to see if the seller’s name matches that of the person selling it. If not, the seller isn’t the registered owner, and you need to ask more questions.
  • Look for rust and metal flaking in the engine compartment, under the dashboard, in the trunk, and under the seats.
  • Check for discolored carpeting and upholstery. If the upholstery and carpeting doesn’t match or is completely new, it may have been replaced to hide damage.
  • Look for moisture or fogging inside headlamps, taillight assemblies, overhangs of the wheel wells and other enclosed spaces.
  • Notice dirt or mud in unusual places. Check along seat rails, in the glove compartment, trunk, and other storage areas.
  • Check for brittle, damaged wires, rusty connectors and bad ABS or airbag warning lights on the dashboard.
  • Finally, use your nose. Mildewed materials give off a distinctive, musty odor, even when an unscrupulous seller tries to cover it up. If it stinks, the car’s a bad buy.

Brian J. O’Connor is the author of the award-winning budgeting book, “The $1,000 ChallengeHow One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and/or policies of

Meet the Author

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor


Brian O'Connor is a contributing writer for O'Connor is a journalist, writer and consultant. He's a syndicated personal finance columnist and author of "The $1,000 Challenge."

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car buying, Very Personal Finance

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Article last modified on October 16, 2018 Published by, LLC . Mobile users may also access the AMP Version: Flood-Damaged Cars Won't Drive a Bargain - AMP.