Flood-damaged Vehicles

Car immersed in flood watersConsumers should be warned that many previously-flooded vehicles are recycled into the economy and end up being resold.  In the months following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, large numbers of such vehicles were released into the marketplace.  These may have been the property of dealers, fleet owners, or individuals and may have been written off as “salvage” or “totaled” by insurance companies in other states, though this may not appear on the title.

Jack Kain, Chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, estimates that half of the 570,000 vehicles sustaining flood damage from Katrina will be repaired and sold to unsuspecting consumers and dealers in a scenario that he hopes will prompt action by the federal government.

With new or recently-shampooed upholstery and carpeting, and perhaps some body work, the damage on these vehicles may be very well disguised and difficult for even a professional to detect.  Nonetheless, electrical problems are practically guaranteed, and the brakes, airbags and computer system may have been seriously compromised.

If you are in the market for a used car, truck, van or SUV, be vigilant for signs of flood damage in the vehicle you are considering purchasing.   A musty odor may be noticeable, and water marks may be evident or fabrics faded.  Metal may be flaking prematurely, and rust, mud and grit may be hidden in the crevices where water would not normally reach.

Check the upholstery, dashboard, glove compartment, trunk, inner doors, engine area, and under the seats and carpeting.  Look for drainage holes beneath the car, and check gauges and the condition and flexibility of all wires, including those below the dash.  Have someone do a minute inspection of the alternator crevices, behind wiring harnesses, and around the small recesses of starter motors, power steering pumps and relays.  Test and retest the ignition, lights, wipers, air conditioner, heater and all accessories.

As with any used vehicle purchase, have the car examined by a trusted mechanic before you pay any money for it.  In addition to checking the title for any notation of flood damage, you might consider requesting a vehicle history report, using the vehicle identification number (VIN), from www.CARFAX.com or Experian’s www.AutoCheck.com.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau also maintains on its web site a partial database of vehicles affected by the hurricanes.  You can search without charge by either the VIN or the HIN (Hull identification number)—bearing in mind that this information has not been verified for completeness or accuracy.  When you search this database or review the vehicle history report, remember that neither is a substitute for a thorough physical inspection.