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Everything from Hood Ornaments to Tail Lamps Flooded car and street in New Orleans - after Hurricane Betsy 1965Flooded cars were everywhere after Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans in 1965, leaving in its wake submerged businesses, homes and cars.
(Photo courtesy NOAA)
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Vol. 3, No. 8
November 4, 2005
Updated December 17, 2005

How To Spot Flood Damaged Cars
by Automotive Mileposts Staff

Image: MILEPOSTS Garage

With a couple of major hurricanes behind us, many of those affected are now in the process of cleaning up, repairing, and trying to get their lives back in order. The amount of damage Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused is unprecedented. A record amount of money from the government, insurance companies, and various charities is pouring into the devastated areas. And where there's money, there's opportunity. And that includes opportunities for unscrupulous individuals who do not care how they make a buck.

The saying "buyer beware" was never more applicable, especially when buying a car. In addition to all the concerns you normally have to worry about, such as getting a lemon, or a car that was wrecked and repaired, you can now add flood damage to the list. And spotting a flood damaged car that has been cleaned up isn't as easy as you might think.

Cars with a high price tag or very popular models are the ones most likely to have a major cleanup and refurbish job done on them, because there's more room for profit. And before we get into the details, we'll just say this up front: a flooded car will never be a good car. It can look good, smell good, and work well for a while—but it will always be trouble prone.

Flooded cars have had water in places where water isn't supposed to ever be. Electrical components, wiring, computerized controls, and switches are just a few of the things that come to mind. Add to that upholstery and carpet padding that will decompose over time and become a breeding ground for mold and odors, and mechanical components such as the engine and transmission, which might have their lubricants compromised by the addition of water to the crankcase, cylinders, and pans, you've got a real mess on your hands!

You can be certain you don't want to risk your safety and health with such a vehicle. It's just not worth it, even if you can save thousands of dollars. Mold and bacteria have infiltrated every crevice, some of which are not accessible once the car has been assembled. No matter how well or how thoroughly the vehicle has been cleaned, it's impossible to get everything. And what lurks in these crevices will continue to grow, and you and your passengers will be breathing in these microbes. Not good.

Sensitive air bag components will likely not work properly once exposed to moisture. But you won't know there's a problem with them until it's too late. It's just not worth the risk.

You might think there would be some glaring issues on flooded vehicles that would really stand out, making them easy to spot. Think again. Many will have been disassembled, with new carpet and padding installed, and thoroughly cleaned up using strong disinfectants and heavily perfumed cleaners. Some may have even been reupholstered, or had new seats installed from another vehicle. Even a trusted mechanic might not be able to spot a flooded car without careful scrutiny.

Here are a few things to look for:

Mud caked on surfaces up inside the instrument panel. Get a strong light, lay on your back, and look up inside the instrument panel for areas that show mud or dirt where you wouldn't expect to find mud or dirt unless the car had been under water. You may need to remove finish panels to get a good view. Also run your fingers across support braces in the instrument panel, again looking for caked on mud. Unless the vehicle is very old, these areas should still be fairly clean on a car that's only a few years old. Look at wiring harnesses for signs of moisture or mud as well.

Moisture in gauges, lenses, and dials. Check these carefully for small water droplets, which indicate the presence of moisture. These small droplets often reappear after these components have been disassembled and cleaned, and might not be noticed unless you look carefully.

Air conditioning and heating duct work that smells odd. Turn on the heater, defroster, and air conditioning and stick your nose right up next to the vents. Any smells you might sense should not be of strong disinfectants or deodorizers. A smoky smell could indicate the previous owner was a smoker, and older cars can have a stale smell to them, but ask yourself if what you smell seems normal from a car where an effort hasn't been made to disguise odors. If it seems strange, walk away from it.

Look for warped interior trim panels. Most door panels and interior trim panels have a fiberboard base, which warps and swells when exposed to moisture for long periods of time. Vehicles that are relatively new should not show any signs of deformity on these panels.

Get a vehicle history report on any car before you buy it! When shopping for a new or used car, always use common sense, and if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Remember there were a lot of brand new, never driven cars flooded, and while authorities have attempted to document these vehicles, there will likely be a few that slip through the cracks, especially considering the poor response to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy.

Since you have no way of knowing up front what the car history is, you can minimize the chances of being taken if you buy only from a reputable dealer whenever possible, as they are most likely to have good cars on hand, and probably know more about its history than a dealer who buys large lots of cars at auction.

Keep in mind that it is possible for a flooded vehicle to look good and perform well for a period of time after it was flooded, but this is only temporary. There will always be issues with flooded cars and trucks, and some of them may not reveal themselves until months later.

The National Automobile Dealers Association estimates that over 571,000 vehicles have been salvaged and/or abandoned in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, and that number is likely to continue to grow. No one knows for certain how many of those vehicles will slip through the system and be offered for sale at some point. Research the vehicle history of any car you're considering purchasing using a reputable vehicle history service before you buy, and if you discover that the vehicle was located in or near a flooded area at some point in the past, proceed with caution. And remember that just because a search doesn't indicate the vehicle came from a flooded area, that doesn't mean it wasn't there.

Update (January 28, 2006) - 14 Flood damaged cars recently showed up at an auto auction in Los Angeles, California. The sellers were attempting to sell them as regular used cars, after putting the titles through a process known as "title-washing." This ensures the titles don't indicate the vehicles were once salvaged in another state.

Copyright © 2005 Automotive Mileposts, Inc.
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