Used Car Buyers Beware: Flood-Damaged Vehicles Will Hit the Market Soon

flooded SUVDiane Zielinski bought a used car for her 17-year-old son at a dealership in Quakertown, Pa., about a decade ago. She paid $3,500 for the maroon Pontiac Grand Am. Three weeks later, her son called from a dark country road at 9 p.m. He had heard a loud bang, and then engine on the car had blown apart.

"There were pieces of engine and oil all over the ground," Zielinski recalls. "He could have been hurt."

While Zielinski called the dealer, her son came across the website for Carfax, a nationwide database that tracks vehicle histories. He entered the Grand Am's vehicle identification number, and learned that his car had been flooded in New Jersey during Hurricane Floyd, declared a total loss, and given a salvage title. Somewhere along the line after that, a clean title had been forged.

"The car should have been nowhere but in the junk yard," says Zielinski, who got no compensation from the dealer, and was charged $200 for towing it back to the dealership. (She refused to pay.)

Used car buyers should be on the lookout for flood-damaged cars following Hurricane Irene, one of the most destructive storms to hit the East Coast in decades. About half of flood-damaged vehicles find their way back to market, says Chris Basso, Carfax spokesman.

And, given the recent historic flooding in New England, "it could be in the tens of thousands of cars easily," he says. "It takes a few months for us to see those cars reappear for sale, but we expect the cars to start washing up all over the country before the end of the year." (Some 600,000 vehicles were damaged in the Gulf region in 2005 during Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and Rita; Hurricane Ike in 2008 affected 100,000 vehicles in Texas, according to Carfax.)

How a 'Salvage' Car Gets a Clean Title

Flooded vehicles are dangerous because the water damages the mechanical and electrical systems that control safety features. That means anti-lock brakes and turn signals can fail, airbags may not deploy in an accident, or -- as in Zielinski's case -- the entire engine can simply blow up. "It's almost a ticking time bomb in terms of what's going to go wrong," says Alec Gutierrez, manager of vehicle of valuation at Kelley Blue Book.

Health issues are another concern. "This isn't Deer Park spring water that flooded the car," says Basso. "It has chemicals and filth that gets into the seats and ventilation, and can result in a buildup of mold and bacteria."

How do these cars wind up back on the market? Typically, an insurance company claim is filed on a flooded car, and it's declared a total loss or repaired. That information is reported to the state department of motor vehicles, and a "salvage title" is issued. Most of those vehicles are refurbished and resold through salvage auctions, and properly branded with full disclosure.

But a salvage dealer can purchase the car and move it to a state that doesn't track that information, resulting in a clear title from that state, says Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for auto information website "When it's resold, the next buyer wouldn't know its history," says Reed. "We have 50 states and not all of them talk to each other. Sellers take advantage of that."

Sellers can also forge a fake title or try to alter the real one (the term "title washing" comes from a chemical scammers once used to remove the ink of the title brand). Used car shoppers should check the VINs of any car they are considering at Carfax, or the National Insurance Crime Bureau to see if the title has ever been branded. If so, walk away -- there are plenty of other choices.

What to Watch Out For

The other source of flood-damaged vehicles are individual sellers, who market the vehicles online or on the side of the road. "You could have a car that sat in standing water and then the owner tries to turn around and sell it," says Reed. "There will be no documentation of this, so the subsequent buyer would have to detect it by physical evidence on vehicle itself."

That evidence can include discoloration in the interior upholstery or carpet, or fabric that's been recently replaced; brittle, dry or flaky electrical wires under the dashboard; soot or rust in the trunk or engine bay; and a musty, mildewy or overly perfumed smell, says Gutierrez.

When turn on the ignition to take a test drive, make sure all of the warnings and accessory lights turn on, says Gutierrez: "If the lights are flickering or not working properly it could be another warning about electrical system."

The best line of defense is to take the vehicle to a mechanic you trust to check it out.

When she saw the recent floods, Zielinski's thoughts turned back to her family's experience a decade ago; she's worried other used car buyers will confront the same scam. "What upset me more than anything was to think my kid could have been hurt by buying this car," she says. "Anything could have happened."

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Advice for Recent College Grads

Prepare yourself for the "real world".

View Course »

How to Avoid Financial Scams

Avoid getting duped by financial scams.

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

Make lots of many in OIL. I got a REAL conspiracy for all of you. One that I PROVE mathematically and scientifically, and it's one of the biggest secrets there is. The FACT that ALL Futures markets are CONTROLLED by a Computer program. They DO NOT trade.period! I'm a scientist and trader and this is a FACT, not a con, not a scam, not a joke, not a whacko, just the REAL TRUTH! Go to my website "Oil Trading Academy", then go to the page "Secret Revealed", read that page and get ready for your mind to be boggled.

October 02 2011 at 10:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Getting back to the story, cars should be able to withstand being dunked in water.

Fresh water at least. It is bad design by automakers that means that all those cars are written off - & windfall profits to them for their bad design!

Design rules should include surviving a 24 hour submersion in fresh water.

September 19 2011 at 3:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Funny, came back to see if there was more answers about the problem of buying cars that might have had flood damage and see that the commentaries have turned into a high school debate session.

September 16 2011 at 9:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

92% of blacks think Obama is doing a great job. I saw it on looney lib news so it must be true.

September 15 2011 at 9:26 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to savemycountry911's comment

92% of racists (which is what you are because you decided to make a post about "blacks" which has nothing to do with this article) think he is doing a bad job.

September 16 2011 at 9:02 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

92% of blacks think Obama is doing a great job. It has to be because they want freebes. There is no other reason.

September 15 2011 at 9:22 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply

I can't believe 92% of African Americans believe Obama is doing a good job. They know they have a better chance at keeping their govt. cheese with the Socialist.

September 15 2011 at 9:01 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to savemycountry911's comment

Stereotypes are facts. 92% of blacks love Obama.

September 15 2011 at 9:21 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply

If 92% of white people voted for a white guy over a black guy the blacks and most of the Marxists posing as Socialist, liberal, progressive democrats would immediately claim that they were all racists, terrorist, hostage takers, extortionists, lynchers, and just about anything else than a white man - just like they do the tea drinkers who by all accounts are about the nicest people best Americans anyone could point to. . So what do we call them?

September 15 2011 at 11:12 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dabrownman's comment

The tea party is too extreme for mainstream.

September 15 2011 at 11:51 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down
Mac Hayes

Duh, ya think? Take a flooded out vehicle, spruce it up a little, make sure the motor runs, and sell it as a first rate used vehicle. What a novel idea....................................

September 15 2011 at 8:43 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply


September 15 2011 at 6:44 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to btypoons1's comment

and they'll probably get it.

September 15 2011 at 8:11 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply

How to check for flood damage. Lift carpet up and look for debris and silt. Look under the dash and see if you see old dried up water spots in dust. Rusty or corroded electrical connections in the fuse box. These are just a few. Best way is to not buy a used car.

September 15 2011 at 6:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Carfax spokesman said these cars will hit the market? Wonder if carfax will give the people from the east coast free carfax ummmmmm NOT $29.95 GETS YOU THE CARFAX but wait if car fax is wrong about the carfax they will buy the car back from you right? WRONG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I buy 2010-2011-2011 smashed cars and put them back together i run carfax on them befor i buy them and i buy about 30 per month and 80% of the time the carfax is CLEAN MEANING NO REPORTED ACCIDENTS OR FLOOD DAMAGE.Go to a dealership have them run a full test on the car the cost is around $75.00 they will tell you if the car has issues.


September 15 2011 at 5:25 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply