Half the cars damaged by Harvey, Irma could end up for sale

Used-car buyers need to be vigilant

There may not be a more risky time to buy a used car.

Hundreds of thousands of flood-damaged vehicles could end up on the market in the wake of the catastrophic storms in Texas and Florida.

As many as 1 million water-damaged cars and trucks were left behind by Tropical Storm Harvey, which came ashore south of Houston on August 25. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Irma crashed into the Florida Keys, and, over the next several days, cut a path up the coast that caused record flooding as far north as South Carolina.

About half the cars and trucks damaged by floods are cleaned up and resold, according to used-car research firm Carfax, which estimates that, before Harvey and Irma hit, there were already more than 325,000 previously flooded cars on the road - 20 percent more than in 2016. 

“Our data shows there’s still much work to be done in helping consumers avoid buying flood damaged cars,” Dick Raines, president of Carfax, said. “They can, and do, show up all over the country, whether it be a few miles or hundreds of miles from where the flooding occurred."

Water can damage a car’s computer and electrical system, and interfere with safety features such as the brakes and air bags. It can also contribute to mildew and mold, or worse: floodwaters are often contaminated with toxic substances and chemicals.

Most flood-damaged cars are covered by insurance. Some that are considered "totaled" are dismantled, while others are repaired and salvage titles are issued, allowing them to be sold with full disclosure of the damage. Many states require the titles of flood-damaged cars to be "branded," which provides potential buyers with information about previous damage.

But hiding flood damage isn't that difficult, and unscrupulous dealers and individuals can deceive potential buyers through “title washing” -- registering the vehicles in states where the title brands did not transfer. 

There are ways to protect yourself from unknowingly purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle. Carfax recommends doing business with an established and reputable dealer and taking your car to a mechanic for a thorough inspection.

The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) offers these tips to spot flood-damaged vehicles: 

1. Check a vehicle's title history using the National Insurance Crime Bureau's VinCheck, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System or a vehicle-history reporting service, such as Experian or Carfax, etc. 

2. Examine the interior and the engine compartment for evidence of water and grit from suspected submersion.

3. Check for recently shampooed carpeting. 

4. Look under the carpeting for water residue or stain marks from evaporated water not related to air-conditioning pan leaks. 

5. Inspect for interior rust and under the carpeting, and inspect upholstery and door panels for evidence of fading. 

6. Check under the dash for dried mud and residue, and note any mold or a musty odor in the upholstery, carpet or trunk. 

7. Check for rust on screws in the console and in other areas water would normally not reach unless the vehicle was submerged. 

8. Look for mud or grit in alternator crevices, behind wiring harnesses and around the small recesses of starter motors, power steering pumps and relays. 

9. Inspect electrical wiring for rusted components, water residue or suspicious corrosion. 

10. Inspect other components for rust or flaking metal not normally found in late model vehicles.