It happens after every major flood catastrophe: Tens of thousands of cars are inundated by storm surge or rising waters from heavy rain. Insurers declare them total losses and sell them to salvage companies.
Many end up in scrap yards, where reusable parts are stripped and the remainders are crushed.
Others, however, are bought at steep discounts by low-volume flippers who air them out and polish them up as best they can before posting them on Craigslist or parking them on a corner with a For Sale sign in the window.
Many sellers won’t tell you that the vehicle had been in a flood, and they hope you don’t ask. But you should be aware: “These cars are literally rotting from the inside out,” according to Emile Voss, spokeswoman for vehicle-history provider Carfax.
Prior to Hurricane Ian, Florida had more flood-damaged cars on its roads — 33,500 — than any other state except Texas, according to Carfax. And nearly half of those flood-damaged Florida cars were in the South Florida metropolitan area, Voss said.
After Ian, those numbers should increase over the coming months, Voss said.
Among the 553,244 Ian-related property damage claims logged as of Oct. 19 by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, 123,299 were for damages to private passenger automobiles, according to an office spokeswoman.
Ian could be responsible for damaging as many as 358,000 cars nationwide, Carfax said in a recent news release. Many will join the 400,000 water-damaged vehicles already on the nation’s roads.
Carfax is one of several auto-focused organizations warning consumers to exercise caution when buying a used vehicle in the coming months. You don’t want the hassle of diagnosing and fixing water-related issues in the months and years after your car purchase, they say.
Kelly Blue Book says, “Water can destroy electrical and mechanical systems, lubricants and cause mold, rust and corrosion over time.”
David dos Santos, owner of Japanese Auto Care Specialists in Margate, said problems caused by floods might not be apparent immediately after the waters recede and the car gets dried out.
“You could bring me a car that had been in a flood yesterday, and I wouldn’t see any symptoms,” he said. Flood damage, he said, “can be hard to identify, even if it happened two or three months before.”
But within six to eight months, flooded cars turn into “nightmares,” he says, as trapped moisture oxidizes and corrodes the pins, wires and circuit boards that relay drivers’ commands.
Saltwater if particularly damaging, Kelly Blue Book says, “due to the corrosive effect it can have on rubber hoses and wiring.” Cars that sit in saltwater for any length of time “can develop serious problems with the electrical systems and brakes,” it says.
Research firm Cox Automotive estimates about 50,000 vehicles were severely damaged by Ian — a large number, but just a fraction of the 300,000 vehicles severely damaged when Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area over 48 hours in 2017.
When a vehicle in Florida is flooded and reported to the owner’s insurance company, the insurance company is required to brand the title as “salvage flood.” Information about the brand is required to be uploaded to Florida’s Motor Vehicle Information Check database and the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System so would-be buyers can type in a Vehicle Information Number (VIN) and see the brand.
Dealers are required to disclose in writing if a vehicle has been branded, but fraudulent sellers can get flooded cars retitled in other states with lax disclosure laws, then bring them back to stricter states and offer them for sale as undamaged used cars. This practice is known as “title washing.”
According to VINCheck.info, a vehicle-damage lookup website, states near Florida that are easy to “wash” titles include Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi.
While damage histories of cars with washed titles might be uncovered by checking Carfax, VINCheck and others, those and other services don’t always have complete histories, a Kelly Blue Book spokesman said.
“Like most fraud, it’s a cat-and-mouse game,” says Mark Schirmer, spokesman for Kelly Blue Book parent company Cox Automotive Inc. “Title check services are great. They prevent some fraud. But fraudsters are always looking for ways to trick title check services. No one knows how often they succeed.”
Another way flood-damaged cars can enter the market is if the owner has the vehicle repaired without filing an insurance claim.
Consumers in such situations are on their own to determine whether a car they are considering had ever been flooded.
Even the tried-and-true precaution of having an independent mechanic check over a car before purchasing might not catch water damage to electronics if the car seems to be running OK, dos Santos said. Moisture hidden in electronic components probably won’t be detected in such cases, he said.
Large dealers like AutoNation have sophisticated testing procedures to make sure they don’t sell flood-damaged cars.
“We have in place stringent procedures to make sure we don’t get flooded vehicles,” AutoNation spokesman Marc Cannon said by email. “Any vehicle we take in goes through a thermal process to insure it has not been flooded.”
Meanwhile, consumers can take steps to reduce the odds of unknowingly buying a flood damaged car:
- Consumers should check a vehicles’ history with Carfax and Experian’s AutoCheck. Both companies offer free checks for reported flood damage. Other free tools include Florida’s Motor Vehicle Information Check database, the Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System and the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VINCheck service. It’s a necessary step, even if the services might not always have complete information. Schirmer, of Cox Automotive Inc., recommends would-be buyers order a history check and ask a mechanic to inspect the vehicle.
- Look for water lines or signs of mud inside the vehicle. When cleaning flood-damaged cars for resale, sellers often neglect the glove box, the trunk and under the dashboard. Look under the carpet for fading, stains and rust.
- Use your nose. A musty smell indicates that a car has been exposed to water. A strong smell of air freshener might be trying to mask the smell of mildew. New or freshly shampooed carpet or upholstery should be considered suspicious. Check them carefully for moldy odors.
- Look for water or debris in the headlight casing, and for dirt and debris in small crevices under the hood. Check the engine bay for orange rust and bolts that look as if they could crumble under the force of a wrench. Look for signs of electrical corrosion that have advanced beyond what you would expect for the car’s age. Check under the car for caked-on debris, premature rusting and metal flaking. Check brake discs for unusual rust.