How to Check for Flood/Hurricane Damage When You Buy a Used Car

The recent hurricanes on the Gulf Coast damaged many cars.  Some cars may be able to be repaired, however, consumers should beware of buying used cars that are flood-damage that won’t last very long. AUTO Connected Car News explains why you need to check used-cars very carefully and how to do it.

It is estimated that due to hurricane Harvey a half of million cars will need to be replaced by iHS Markit’s Chris Hopson. It s not clear yet how many vehicles will need to be replaced due to Hurricane Irma.

“Given the different dynamics of the separate hurricanes (more relative flooding and vehicles in place for Harvey compared to more wind and large evacuations during Irma) the number of vehicles needing replacement due to Hurricane Irma will be significant, but likely less than what resulted from Hurricane Harvey,” said Hopson.

Hurricane and flood-damaged cars could flood the market. Connected cars use many wires, SoCs, computer chips, cameras, sensors and wireless devices that can be damaged by water, mud and even wind.

Used car buyers ought to be leery of buying cars with prices that “seem to good to be true.” Sometimes, cars are given bogus titles and sold as undamaged when they are in fact flooded vehicles. Fraudulent claims could be made about vehicle that are taken over state lines into neighboring states for fast sales and quick profits.

A few years ago, I was shopping for used car. A dealer was offering a model for around $1000 less than the going prices at other dealers. The car dealer gave me the CarFax report, the vehicle was a part of rental fleet in St. Louis. I called my friend who told me a few months prior there was massive flooding in St Louis. I crawled under the car and there was rust all over the bolts. We realized that someone probably rented the car to leave the flooded areas. In Southern California, my 15-year old car had less rust than the 3-year-old used car.

If you are shopping for a used vehicle, AUTO Connected Car News suggests you do the following if you are considering buying a used vehicle:

  • Sniff around for musty smells all over the car under the seats, under the dash and in the trunk.
  • Inspect for water stains mildew, sand or silt under the mats, roof liner and behind the dashboard.
  • Look for rust under and all around the vehicles, in places that normally don’t rust.
  • Examine the upholstery and door panels for fading or staining.
  • Pull up the carpet, to see if there are water marks or stains.
  • Inspect the carpet to see if looks like it was recently replaced.
  • Check the power locks and windows to see if they work.
  • Look at the headlights and tail lights for signs of fogging.
  • Take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic to inspect the vehicle for water contamination.
  • Scan crevices for silts such as under the spare tire, behind wire harnesses, under the battery, starter motor and pumps.
  • Scrutinize the door speakers, look for rust and listen to see if they sound “funny” or do not work at all. Speakers have magnets in them and can be easily damaged by water.
  • Go over the engine with a bright light to inspect for signs of oxidation.
  • Aluminium and alloy metals that have been exposed to water will show white powder marks and pitting.
  • Check the  National Insurance Crime Bureau database to see if it has been reported by an insurance company as a flooded vehicle.
  • Also check the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System:
  • Look at the VIN number carefully, to see if numbers have been changed. The VIN appears on the driver’s dash and door panel. CarFax reports will show where the vehicle was owned registered and serviced. If the car was driven in Houston and other cities hit by the storms, think twice before buying it. If the dealer shows you a CarFax report check the date of the report. Sometimes Auto Clubs offer a discount on CarFax services or your insurance agent will run a VIN report for you. Car buying services like TrueCar and will often show you a vehicle history report. Ebay also shows vehicle history reports.
  • See if the vehicle has a  “salvage title” and “flood title.”
  • Be very leery if the car’s price is way below true market value.

If you suspect a dealer flood-damaged vehicle and claiming it has a “clean-title” or was never driven in flood or hurricane areas please contact your auto insurance company, local law enforcement agency and state attorney general.

There’s a saying that Realtors use all the time, which car buyers should also think about, ‘If it smells it won’t sell.” Ridding a car of smells could be costly and futile because they keep coming back, over and over again. Sometimes the smell will get worse over time.

The Car Care Council Suggests:


  • Take the sniff test. Close all the windows and doors and let the car sit for about five minutes then crack open a door and sniff. Mildew and mold have very distinctive smells and it doesn’t take long for that smell to present itself.
  • Try the touch test. Get some paper towels and press them against the low spots in the carpet. The paper towels will draw the moisture out and reveal if the carpet is wet under the surface. Some carpets can be several inches thick to insulate from heat and sound. If the paper towel becomes wet it could mean water has gotten into the car.
  • Investigate the interior. Look under the seats and dash for corrosion and rust and look for exposed metal that is untreated. There are metal springs under the front seats that are usually not painted. If they are rusted that is a sign the interior has been wet. Look for mud and debris in places it does not belong.
  • Inspect the instrument panel. Turn on the key and perform a bulb test. Make sure every bulb lights up. If a system has an issue, removing the warning bulb can hide it. Many times vehicles that have flooded have malfunctions in their anti-brake and air bag systems. Ensuring the light comes on and then goes out after the bulb test is an indicator that the system is on and has no active faults.
  • Take it to a professional. Let a service and repair technician inspect your vehicle. T