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Flooded Cars: Beware of Used Vehicles for Sale After a Storm

If there’s one thing we can count on after a devastating hurricane or tropical storm, it’s that the used car market will be flooded with water-damaged cars.

Scammers begin dumping affected cars into the used car inventory, typically within days of a flood.

Used vehicle shoppers in affected areas should be particularly wary when searching to buy a replacement car. But shoppers in other areas also need to increase their vigilance. Unscrupulous sellers will move damaged vehicles to unaffected states, where they will retitle the cars before foisting them on unsuspecting buyers. Like gas vapor seeping into a room, storm-damaged cars will find their way into every corner of the country.

Flood damage can ruin a vehicle in many ways, from eating away the electronics wiring to seizing up mechanical systems. The damage may not reveal itself for months or even years. Corrosion and rust will eat away at sheet metal and components from the inside out over time.

Obviously, not every used car coming out of storm-affected areas will be damaged, but many flooded cars won’t show outward signs of water trauma.

Buyer Beware

Used car shoppers can take these steps to eliminate the chances of buying one of these future rust buckets.

Depending on whether the seller is a licensed dealer or a private owner, duped buyers may have some legal recourse if, after purchase, their used car turns out to be flood-damaged, but that’s not guaranteed. Avoiding a flood-damaged vehicle ultimately falls to the used car shopper, and the most effective way to avoid being scammed is to be alert to the danger and look for a few telltale signs.

Aggressively inspecting any used vehicle being considered for purchase is the most effective prescription for dodging one with terminal water damage.

A qualified mechanic best accomplishes this. If a mechanic isn’t available or you want to avoid the expense of a professional, you may be able to identify a problem vehicle yourself with a preemptive inspection.

What Signs to Look For in a Flood-Damaged Vehicle

Although you won’t be able to peek into every nook and cranny, there are some areas where obvious signs of damage lurk.

Here are a few places to inspect and what to look for:

  • Check under the vehicle’s carpets or floor covering for mud or rust, and don’t forget the trunk.
  • Give the underside of the carpets a sniff test. Do they smell like mildew?
  • Mud and debris collect in hard-to-clean spaces, such as under the hood and in the trunk.
  • Rust on the heads of any exposed screws under the hood, around the doors, or in the trunk indicates exposure to excess moisture.
  • Mud and debris on the underside of panels and brackets is another sign the car has been underwater.

If you suspect that the used car you’re considering is a flood-damaged vehicle, the smart move is to walk away. If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. The alternative is to pay for a mechanic to give the car a thorough inspection.

Do a Background Check on the Used Car You Want to Buy

Autotrader always recommends obtaining a vehicle history report of every used car under consideration. Online sites like and CARFAX provide such reports for a nominal cost. Pay special attention to the vehicle’s title history. Both sites link to dedicated “flood damage” sites, which can effectively root out flood-damaged cars.

How to Protect Your Car Before a Storm 

If a storm is headed your way, there are a few things you can do to protect your existing vehicle:

  • Gather your car paperwork. Make sure you have a duplicate copy of your car’s registration in a safe place.
  • Get your lender’s phone number. Have your lender’s phone number handy — in the event of damage to your vehicle. They may allow you to skip a few payments.
  • Check your car insurance policy. Along those lines, have your insurance provider’s phone number accessible, as well as a copy of your insurance card. You may still be able to add comprehensive coverage that can protect your car from flooding if you don’t carry it.
  • Know your VIN. Write down or take a photo of the vehicle identification number (VIN) for your car.
  • Take photos. Get out before the storm and take photos of your car so that you can compare the before and after in case there’s a question of any damage.

Related Used Car Buying Stories:

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More about Russ Heaps

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  1. Is there anything that can be done if I purchased a vehicle last year and after 1 winter it is clear that it was a flood car. Was bought from a dealership

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