Why you should check cars for flood damage before buying

·4 min read

What happens to all the damaged cars seen in photos after a flood or a hurricane?

The severely damaged vehicles may be scrapped, but not all that should be declared totaled are actually retired. Roughly 378,000 flood-damaged cars were on the road in 2021, according to CARFAX data, and the company warned in a mid-September press release that more may surface for sale on used car lots after Hurricane Ida.

"Our data suggests that unsuspecting buyers everywhere are at risk of winding up with a previously flooded car," said Chris Basso, CARFAX spokesperson, in the press release. "The real danger is that these cars may look fine and run well for a while, but sooner rather than later, major problems are likely to occur. Flooded cars literally rot from the inside out, and the damage is often difficult for untrained eyes to detect."

People look at a car flooded as a result of the remnants of Hurricane Ida in a local street in Somerville, N.J., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

The company estimated flooding from Hurricane Ida, centered around New York City, New Jersey and Louisiana, had potentially damaged roughly 212,000 vehicles. While its data shows that Texas has the most flood-damaged vehicles in the U.S., it and other experts have warned that checking a car for water damage before buying it, even in an area that hasn't experienced a flood recently, can potentially save someone thousands in the long run.

"The big risk ... is simply this: With modern cars being so full of electrical and electronic devices, water can do fairly extensive damage to these electrical devices, especially in modern cars," Richard Reina, product training director at CARiD.com, told AccuWeather National Reporter Kim Leoffler. "Many of the vehicles' control units, computers as we might call them, are mounted fairly low in the vehicle, so it does not take a lot of water for the vehicle to potentially suffer some damage."

He recommended potential buyers to use all of their senses when inspecting a car, but mostly sight, touch and smell.

University of Alabama student Lindsay Sero inspects the water damage to her car from flooding that hit Parkview Drive, which resulted from days of heavy rains, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. She's assisted by her friend Rylan Wright at rear. Heavy rain caused some flash flooding Saturday on parts of the campus. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

"A vehicle that's been in water may have a moldy or mildewy smell, and don't be ashamed or embarrassed about getting down and bringing your nose close to things like the upholstery on the seats or the carpeting," Reina said, adding to check the upholstery, the door panels, the carpet and areas out of sight like under the seat for any moisture or dampness.

Water is nothing to shrug off, and CarTalk considers cars that had flooding past the floor of the vehicle as totaled. However, Reina said it's not unheard of for people to resell flood-damaged cars.

"What we've seen in previous hurricanes and times when the country's been affected like this is that flood-damaged cars move to other parts of the country for potential resell," Reina said. "And I hate to say this, but we do have unscrupulous people out there who try to maybe purchase these cars and then resell them, and one trick is to move them to a part of the country that was not affected by the floodwaters."

This Sept. 4, 2021, photo shows cars ruined by the floodwaters of Ida sitting in the parking lot of an apartment complex along the Raritan River in Piscataway. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

On the list of top 10 states with the most flood-damaged vehicles, Florida, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and North Carolina all follow Texas to round out the top five spots. The others on the list include California, Illinois, South Carolina, New Jersey and Michigan.

Reina's advice? Even if you live in an area that wasn't impacted by a hurricane or flooding, it's still a good idea to double-check for any flood damage that might have been missed. The carpet and upholstery could have been replaced, but there could still be signs of flood damage on wiring or mechanical fasteners.

FILE - This Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, photo shows flooded cars near the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters from Harvey rise in Houston. Auto industry experts estimate that 500,000 to 1 million cars, trucks and SUVs were damaged by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey. Most will have so much water damage that they can't be fixed, and insurance companies will declare them total losses. Yet the damaged cars could be retitled and sold to unsuspecting buyers nationwide. Experts warn against buying the cars because damage could be hidden for years before causing problems. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

"Take that extra few minutes," Reina said. "Be a little more thorough, and if there's any doubt, it might be your best decision to walk away and look for another car.

Reporting by Kim Leoffler.

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