Spring rains in the United States have not been kind to cars.
The president has declared 11 counties in Texas disaster areas due to heavy rains and flooding. Similar flooding has spanned the country from Virginia to Washington. In Houston alone, about 40,000 vehicles were reported lost due to flood damage.
Typically the damaged cars are either scrapped, or repaired and then given salvage titles and resold. Sometimes, though, unscrupulous sellers take advantage of loopholes in the law and repair the vehicles, retitle them in a new state, and sell them as normal used cars.
The flood-damaged cars can either come as an opportunity for DIY folks who want a good deal, or as an unwelcome surprise for someone who purchases one unwittingly after failing to look for signs of water.
Even if a car looks good and seems to run fine, expensive problems can appear later as corrosion continues to creep inside critical components. Unfortunately, flood-damaged vehicles can be hard to spot, but looking for these signs can help.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau keeps a database of vehicles that have been declared a total loss. Shoppers can search by VIN, which is highly recommended before purchasing any used car.
Not every flood-damaged car ends up in the database, though. One of the telltale giveaways of a flooded car is a moldy aroma inside. Sit in the car, close the doors and windows, and use your nose to sniff out signs of water damage. If the seller has an air freshener hanging from the mirror, it could be an early sign of a cover-up.
If the car passes the aroma test, move on to the touch test. Open the trunk or rear hatch, access the spare tire well, and feel around for wet spots. That’s one of the spots where water tends to accumulate, but one that is easily missed during inspections. You can also check for wet spots under the carpeting.
Next, look for signs of rust and corrosion. Inspect the door hinges, hood springs, screws under the dash, and any other metal parts that should never be exposed to water. Some people even take a mirror and examine the underside of the seats to look for corrosion in the springs.
Water is notorious for damaging electronics, but that can be harder to spot. Be sure to test all electrical components, including the stereo, USB ports, electrical ports, and exterior lighting. Brittle wiring can also be a sign of water damage.
Finally, look for debris. When a car is flooded, sand, grass, silt, and other debris accumulate and can be difficult to completely remove. Look for it in the wheel wells, in the wiring, in engine crevices, and under the dashboard.
A flooded car can be a nightmare for a buyer who unknowingly purchases one. For the handy DIY-type, though, a salvaged car can be an opportunity to get a desirable car for cheap, then fix it.
The CarGurus used listings detail cars with a salvage title. Whether you’re looking to avoid one or to find one, start your search there.
Have you ever owned a car with a salvage title? Did you buy it on purpose or by accident?