Did You Just Buy A Flood Damage Car?

5 Easy Things To Look For

[Includes Resources To Check Your Car's Title]

by Bill Flitter

Dad, Coffee Lover, Coach, First Car: '79 Camaro

Nearly every image coming out of the two recent storm surges show cars and trucks flooded up to their windows, some even completely underwater. These are clearly a flood damage car.

With two of the biggest hurricanes of the century hitting Texas and Florida within weeks of each other, experts estimate that half of the vehicles flooded during these two catastrophes will be resold without being labeled a flood damage car, or with any sort of documentation of severe water damage.

To avoid being unknowingly sold a flood damage car, we’ve aggregated tips from the pros, as well as resources you should always check when buying a used vehicle.

With two of the biggest hurricanes of the century hitting Texas and Florida within weeks of each other, experts estimate that half of the vehicles flooded during these two catastrophes will be resold without being labeled a flood damage car

5 Sure Signs of A Flood Damage Car

Early estimates after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area at the end of August put the total number of vehicles impacted somewhere over 300,000 – and that number realistically could be as many as a million. Add in the devastation of Hurricane Irma on Florida, and the U.S. is about to have an extensive market of flood damage cars.

And they’re not all used – both older model vehicles that are currently owned as well as new-inventory models left underwater at dealership lots are equally as likely to make their way back onto the market to be sold, sometimes without being documented as coming from a storm-ravaged area.

While the immediate region surrounding a recent storm are at the most risk of seeing flooded inventory, really these vehicles can end up being sold almost anywhere.

Here are the tall tale signs of a flood damage car.

Altered Upholstery and Watermarked Carpets

The most obvious damage water leaves behind in a vehicle is in the upholstery and carpet. Trust your nose. If you smell mildew or a musty odor, it’s a good idea to pull up a section of the carpet to look for water lines and stain marks. Do this for both the main cabin and in the trunk.

Brand new upholstery or carpet can be an early indicator of a vehicle that has been remade to look undamaged. Check to see if the carpets have recently been shampooed or replaced all together.


Condensation in Headlights and Taillights

Moisture and any sort of beading or condensation in headlights and taillights can also be an early sign of prior water damage.

Rusted Seat Rails and Door Hinges

Overtime, rust on a vehicle happens. Usually rust can be found on parts of the vehicle exposed to weather, including the undercarriage. Rust, however, to rails under the seats or to door hinges is not common and should be considered a warning sign of potential other damage. The same is true for screw heads inside the vehicle.

Mud and Material Deposits in the Engine Compartment

When buying any used car, the engine and under the hood is where you should pay special attention. For signs of a flood vehicle, check for water lines in the engine and closely examine the entirety of the engine compartment for evidence of any water previously being there. Mud and other material deposits in this area can also be a sign that the vehicle was exposed to flood waters.

Brittle Wiring and Lining

If the lining of a vehicle seems brittle, or if any of the wiring and cables are brittle, this can be a sign of extensive exposure to standing water. Most wiring and casing is flame-retardant but not completely waterproof, making them good components to examine for signs of a flood.

Flood vehicles rot from the inside out and sometimes the corrosion is not immediately noticeable. Freshwater flooding, like what waits to be seen out of Hurricane Harvey, poses less damage, but flood water in general is an abrasive mixture of both water and dirt and the composite material works its way throughout the entirety of a vehicle – leaving damaged mechanical, electrical and safety components in its wake.

Standing water in closed compartments, like the glove box or in a spare tire well, is also a tall tale sign of flood damage. Individually, these signs might not add up to a definite flood vehicle, but if several of these signs are present, it’s a good indicator of extreme water damage.

Documentation: How A Flood Damage Car Should Be Noted

Unseen on such scale before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, flood vehicles since then have been more closely regulated by the federal government – but what exactly gets noted on a vehicle’s title still varies by state.

According to federal law, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) must be notified when an insurance claim is filed for a flood vehicle, and they must get notified again once the vehicle has been resold.

Flood classified vehicles are also legally bound to have labels on their titles, and dealers must disclose in writing to a buyer if a vehicle’s title has a flood “brand,” or a descriptive label assigned to the vehicle’s current or prior condition – including junk, salvage or flood.

All of this to say, there are rules and regulations in place to attempt to protect buyers from unknowingly buying a vehicle that has been in a flood. Cars and trucks for sale by private owners or on used-car lots tend to be the ones that are more at risk for having been “rebuilt” or otherwise cleaned up after a flood, and may also have illegally altered titles. Proceed and purchase with caution.


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Over to You

Never buy a used car without doing your due diligence first, especially if you are in an area that has recently been impacted by flood waters.

Good resources to consult with before buying any used vehicle include:

  • Department of Motor Vehicles – be sure to check to see if there are any brands listed on the title
  • The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System – which provides consumers with information about a vehicle’s current condition and history
  • CARFAX or Experian’s AutoCheck – to check the title history of any pre-owned vehicle by running its vehicle identification number (VIN)
  • National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VINCheck – which allows consumers to see if a vehicle has been reported as having been flooded or salvaged

If a vehicle has not been branded as a flood damage car or if the title has been altered in any way, these resources will not do you as much good as you may think. Which is why it is also important to bring any vehicle you are considering buying to a trusted mechanic.

There is about to be an onslaught of flood damage cars of epic proportions, and just as it was important to prepare for the hurricanes themselves, it is equally as important to prepare for their aftermath – including the purchasing of the vehicles they left destroyed in their wake.