The unrelenting rainstorms that pounded sections of Texas and Louisiana courtesy of Hurricane Harvey this August left an estimated half million vehicles — including as many as 200,000 brand new models left sitting on dealers’ lots — submerged in flood waters.
While extensively flood-damaged vehicles are typically scrapped and recycled, as many as half of them could be hastily reconditioned and see new life on the resale market, according to the auto title-search company CarFax.
Some will be sold with titles that are openly rebranded as “rebuilt,” while many more may have their titles illegally altered. And still more that were either not insured or weren’t damaged enough to be declared as total wrecks will be spiffed up and offered with otherwise clear documentation.
Either way, experts advise used-car shoppers to be on the alert for, and avoid buying, water-damaged cars or trucks that should have otherwise been relegated to the junk yard. While flood-damaged cars are most likely to turn up in states affected by coastal and river flooding, they can find their way into buyers’ hands virtually anywhere within the contiguous 48 states.
In addition to the obvious damage done to upholstery and carpeting, flood water is a corrosive and abrasive mixture of water and dirt (and sometimes salt) that works its way virtually everywhere within a vehicle and can especially damaging to electronics, lubricants, and mechanical systems. Extensive disassembly may be needed for a thorough cleaning and reconditioning.
Though it may look good and start up on cue, a car that’s been submerged could be slowly rusting away in hidden places, and it may take weeks or even months for flood-caused problems to happen.
It’s always good practice to have a qualified mechanic inspect a pre-owned vehicle before signing a bill of sale, and at the least one should conduct a title search via CarFax (www.carfax.com), Experian’s Auto Check (www.autocheck.com) or the NICB’s VinCheck (www.nicb.org) to see if it’s been reported as being flooded or salvaged.
Numerous sources report flood and damage information to Carfax and similar services, including insurance companies and state motor vehicle departments.
Otherwise, here’s how to spot a car or truck being offered for sale that may have been caught in a flood:
• Check the vehicle’s interior — especially under the dashboard — for evidence of water, dried mud and other deposits.
• Look for signs of recently shampooed or replaced carpeting or freshly cleaned upholstery that may have been performed subsequent to flooding. Pull up a corner of the floor covering (both in the passenger compartment and trunk), and look for water residue or stain marks, signs of rust, and evidence of mold or a musty odor.
• See if there’s water still hiding in the dashboard and interior storage cubbies. Look for rust on screws in the center console, the trunk lid, upper door hinges, or other areas that might have been submerged.
• Open the hood and look for mud or residue in crevices, behind wiring harnesses and around small recesses in and around components. Check electrical wiring and relays in the engine compartment and under the dashboard for rusted components, corrosion or water residue.
• Look for water or signs of condensation in the headlamps and taillights, on the instrument panel gauges, and even within the overhead dome light.
• Look under the car, in wheel-wells and around door, hood and trunk panels for evidence of rust not otherwise associated with later-model cars.