Receding flood waters along the Mississippi River, deadly tornadoes leaving havoc in their wake in the Midwest, and above-average rain creating flood conditions throughout many parts of the country are prompting experts to warn consumers of a new danger that’s likely to spread well beyond the areas physically affected by these natural disasters: flood-damaged vehicles making their way to used-car markets around the country.
Similar warnings were issued following damaging hurricanes on the East Coast and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Consumers were warned of “Katrina” cars making their way into local markets. Unsuspecting used car buyers were told to watch for telltale signs of water damage. We can now expect a new crop of water damaged vehicles to flood the U.S. used car market over the next year.
What to watch out for
A water-damaged vehicle may look great when you perform a vehicle walk-around, and even when you sit inside and take it for a test drive. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious issues lurking beneath the surface.
The first thing to do is follow your nose. Put the used car through a “sniff” test. Are there musty odors in the carpet, the seats, or the trunk? Become suspicious if a heavy perfume has been over-used. If there is no smell, put the vehicle through the “touch” test. Put your hand on the seats and carpet and look for moisture. Then feel underneath the front seats where low spots can indicate problems.
If the vehicle was in a flood there may actually be a dark line inside the vehicle that points to the high water mark. Be wary of any continuous line along the seats, rugs, headliner, and so on.
Look for new electronic parts. Pay attention to the dashboard instrumentation. New parts here could indicate previous water damage. Also be wary of water or condensation in the headlights or taillights.
Next, check for rust, water damage, or even mud in the spare-tire well in the trunk, underneath the carpet in the trunk and inside the passenger compartment, along the seatbelt tracks and tensioners, under the hood, and beneath the car along the frame.
What to do
There are specific things you should do as a savvy used car buyer. First, read the vehicle history report. Two are available: AutoCheck.com and Carfax.com. You’ll need the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to find out if the vehicle was either registered in a state that experienced a natural disaster, or if an insurance claim was previously filed for water damage. The vehicle history report will also tell you if it was issued a salvage title (see below).
Next, check the actual title or pink slip. State departments of motor vehicle (DMV) issue “salvage” titles when a vehicle was been an insurance write-off or total loss. This is when the amount of damage exceeds the vehicle’s actual value. Some people buy these “wrecks,” fix them up, and offer them for sale.
Salvage titled vehicles are generally not advised for casual car buyers. These are best left to professionals. At a minimum, a vehicle with a salvage title needs to be inspected by a professional mechanic familiar with the kinds of issues and problems that can arise with these cars.
Finally, buying a pre-owned vehicle from a reputable dealer goes a long way to protecting yourself from buying a car, truck, or SUV with hidden problems.
The author's The 8 Biggest Mistakes Used Car Buyers Make and How to Avoid Them is free at BayAreaCarGuy.com.