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Used-Car Shoppers Should Watch Out for Potential Flood Damage

By Michelle Koueiter

By AutoWeek Jun 8, 2011 12:25PM

Cars that have been flooded are prone to engine and electrical problems.

Heavy spring rains swelled rivers such as the Mississippi and flooded numerous towns. You might have stayed dry, but there's still a risk of being affected--if you wind up with a flood-damaged car.

Large sections of the Midwest and the Southeast flooded because of heavy winter snow and an especially wet spring.

As owners try to salvage any worth from submerged vehicles, survivor cars and trucks will likely trickle into the used-car market during the next 12 months.

At the same time, the supply of used cars is down as the economic recession prompted people to hold on to their cars. That factor is pushing used-car prices higher, increasing the temptation to profit by selling a car with undisclosed flood damage.

Buyers of flood-damaged cars could eventually see problems sprout up with engines, fuel systems, electronics, airbags and brakes.

"A car that's been in a flood, with the engine submerged for any length of time, will never be the same," said Carl Sullivan of AiM Mobile Inspections of Long Beach, Calif., a car-inspection service.

Many states issue a flood or salvage title to a vehicle that has been through a flood. Shoppers can usually find this information on a vehicle-history report.

Auction chain Manheim, which sells cars at wholesale prices to dealers and also runs public sales, said it makes sure that vehicle conditions are disclosed before a sale is completed. In compliance with the National Auto Auction Association policy, Manheim asks sellers to point out any flood damage.

Still, the auction association's water-damage policy is a recommendation, optional for auction companies. Having a professional inspection agency check the car or truck for any problems could be a shopper's safest best.

Sullivan suggested watching for these signs of flood damage:

-- Water or condensation in the headlights or taillights.

-- A musty odor in the cabin or moisture under the carpeting.

-- Mud in the seatbelt tracks or tensioners.

-- Water in the spare-tire well in the trunk.

-- A sagging headliner in the interior, especially on a late-model vehicle.

-- Corrosion under the car--on the brake lines, around the fuel tank, near the top of the springs or shock towers. (This is different from the road salt often found on the frame rails of cars in the Snow Belt.)

Sullivan noted that shoppers should also look under the seats.

"I found two fish under a back seat once," he recalled. "That was a pretty sure sign the car had been flooded."

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Jun 8, 2011 7:41PM

I once bought a used mini-van off a Chrysler's lot, here south of Kansas City, KS.  While on the test drive, I noticed a car rental's name on the driver's door.  After giving a deposit to hold the vehicle, I went home and called the rental agency, using the VIN to obtain their records!  My guess was right on the timing, hurricane Andrew had gone through Miami, FL.  Fortunately, the mini-van was used to move the office(s) up to Georgia, and was out of state when hurricane Andrew hit Miami.


I bought the mini-van with less than 12K miles on it.  And kept it to just under 100K miles on it!  It was probably the best "family" vehicle, I had ever purchased up to that point.  No rust, no engine problems, comfy for all 7 of us!


You can never be too careful when spending money!  ANY questions, get them answered BEFORE you buy!

Jun 9, 2011 3:42PM
Don't be afraid to lift the carpeting up a little bit and check for heavy moisture.  Not all flood cars from the states can be traced if they changed hands a few times.  Look for missing factory vin stickers on the hood and doors and side panels.  Always make sure the texture of the paint is uniform on the entire car top to bottom and bumpers.  If it's different chances are it was wrecked, some car manufactures use a "chip resistant paint" on the rocker panels.  A flood car is fairly easy to spot with a trained eye. Even if you are buying it from a dealer let another reputable shop look at it and show you what they find.   Parking brake cables are another key point to check, if they are frozen and it came from a southern or western state, walk away.   
Jun 9, 2011 5:55AM
I wonder how many Japanese cars that were swallowed up by the tsunami were dried out and shipped to unsuspecting U.S. consumers?  Buyer beware!
Jun 9, 2011 7:13PM
sounds like a cheap way to get a project car since i pretty much just use the body and replace everything else with upgrades.
Jun 10, 2011 6:02AM
Beltway: Not many is my guess. Different emissions and safety standards, as well as things being written in Japanese, would make them difficult to import and sell.
I'd guess your premise is wrong.  The cars most likely to have been flood damaged by the tsunami were those waiting near the docks to be loaded on ships for export.  Being export models already bound for the U.S., they met U.S. emissions and safety standards.
Jun 9, 2011 8:33PM
beware too of car  flooded car from  japan tidal wave and radiation too
Jun 9, 2011 6:32PM
Unless these Japanese tsunami-damaged cars were export models destined for the US market.
Jun 14, 2011 5:25AM
I wonder how many Japanese cars that were swallowed up by the tsunami were dried out and shipped to unsuspecting U.S. consumers?  Buyer beware!
My guess is, that won't be a problem.  I thought traditionally the worst offenders of repackaging and selling flood crippled cars were private sellers and less than reputable used car lots.  I don't remember any case of a primary source manufacturer trying to pull that stunt.  I should look that up later, see if I can find a single case where that happened.

Of course, I am not entirely discrediting your statement.  There is a first time for everything to happen.  I just think it's highly unlikely.

Jun 12, 2011 3:07AM
Submerged cars tend to spontaneously combust. So many incidents of cars bursting into flames here in New Orleans after Katrina.

Worked on a Lenny Kravitz video & they drove a Suburban into the swamp for a stunt. Hour and a half later-poof!
Jun 9, 2011 2:43PM
Beltway: Not many is my guess. Different emissions and safety standards, as well as things being written in Japanese, would make them difficult to import and sell.
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