After the flood waters of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy retreated, a flood of another kind began–the flood of brand new vehicles that were totaled by insurance as a result of flood damage hitting the car auctions.
“Flood cars” flood the market (literally) following most natural disasters. Unfortunately, it can be pretty tough to spot a flood car without a trained eye. It takes not only inspection but a bit of detective work. After collecting an insurance payout, or sometimes while waiting months for insurance to do the right thing, dealerships can accept a settlement for a totaled vehicle and “buy” it back from the insurance company. The title will have a salvaged title, aka rebuilt title. Sometimes it won’t and we’ll come back to that.
First, let’s address localized flood incidents. As a general rule of thumb, avoid vehicles which are being sold close to recent disaster sites and always trace the origin back to the previous owner’s address. Chances are if you buy a car that was recently registered near a massive flood, it sustained some damage that’s invisible to the naked eye.
After Big Disasters
Disasters on the scale of Katrina leave entire lots full of brand new vehicles totaled. Insurance companies are overwhelmed and slow to respond. These are cars with hardly a scratch and less than ten miles on the odometer. The temptation is to dry them out and clean them up, then sell them at auction and write off the loss. Unprincipled middlemen will snap them up and transport them to a part of the country far from the flood where they auction them again for large profit.
It’s important to note that auctions allow almost no pre-bid inspection. Most large dealerships that accidentally buy a “bad” car simply re-auction them. It keeps there name clean but creates a glut of cheap cars that go to other dealerships that don’t care about reputation.
The Good News
The good news is that flood damage isn’t always invisible, but you might need to check some otherwise strange locations. The upholstery is going to be the first place water damage is noticeable, with rot, mold or mildew being present. You may have to lift some of the upholstery to get a peek, but remember that a good cleaning (from a shoddy dealership) can temporarily keep visible signs of water damage at bay.
Here’s how to avoid a flood car and why you should never take a gamble.
Only Use Honest Dealers (Trust but Verify)
If you buy a car from an owner, they can stretch the truth as much as they like with no real repercussions. However, a car doesn’t need to be in a disaster zone in order to get flood damage. If you’re considering a car from an owner in an area you’re unfamiliar with, do a brief search of recent floods in the area to see what the odds are of ending up with a flood car. If the car has been auctioned repeatedly in a short period of time that’s a warning sign. If the asking price is too good to be true, it’s for a reason.
Otherwise, research dealerships, check testimonials and trust your gut. If there are high-pressure sales, a sudden influx of cars or other red flags, it’s best to stay clear.
No matter what, rely on a third party such as a lemon busting company to do a full inspection. When you’re paying the inspector, their allegiance is to you. You’re mechanic is often to busy to do an inspection at the drop of a hat when you find the right car for you and they may not do the online legwork to get a good picture of the cars history.
Bottom line, don’t depend on a dealership to provide comprehensive information; they should welcome a third party unless they have something to hide.
Flood car dangers
When talking about device failures it’s important to note three things:
- What’s likely to fail?
- How catastrophic the results of the failure?
- How expensive it is to fix (to prevent or repair damage)?
The full impact of flood damage might not come to light until weeks, months, or even a couple of years later. However, the internal damage can be severe and not noticeable even to a skilled mechanic.
One of the most common dangers is brakes that suddenly go out months after flood damage from rust. Obviously, a vehicle is made up largely of metal parts which are prone to rust. Brakes can fail with no sign if they were submerged in water.
Other common flood car problems are electrical issues (and resulting fire hazards) as well as black mold which hides in hard to reach spaces and can be fatal to humans.
So the issue here is less about what could fail, it’s about how bad the results are when they do. There’s no point in risking the purchase of a flood car. They’re simply unsafe and unpredictable.