The effects of Hurricane Irene will be felt for months on end, as communities rebuild and the floodwaters subside. And with the damage of the storm comes the inevitable influx of flood-damaged and salvaged cars, unloaded by unscrupulous owners onto a strong used-car market.
This scenario echoes the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of such cars made their way across state lines, to be re-registered with clean titles that hid their watery provenance. The same thing is likely to happen with East Coast cars as they get shifted around the country. It doesn’t matter what state buyers are in—they may still come across a flood car.
Water damage isn’t always easy to spot. If it gets into a car’s engine, for example, the car won’t start. But if it soaks into a vehicle’s electronics, contaminates fluids, or trickles into other mechanical systems, it can be weeks or even months before problems crop up. Suspension components and the chassis will start rusting immediately, but you won’t see it for a while. Electronics can short-circuit, and contaminated airbag systems won’t deploy in a crash—if the car even runs.
Lemon laws make it illegal to sell flood cars, but the Snidely Whiplashes of the world still find a way to peddle their cars to unsuspecting buyers, so it’s important to know how to avoid buying a flood car.
The first step is to run a car’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN. Carfax promises comprehensive peace of mind, but similar information is available for free through the National Insurance Crime Bureau or National Motor Vehicle Title Information System database. The latter is run by the federal government, and offers consumers a chance to contact police agencies to fight fraud.
However, vehicle titles can be “washed” to remove information about damage, so a clean title is still no guarantee, especially in the months immediately after a flood. If the car you’re looking for comes from a flood-damaged area, look for the following when you inspect it in person:
The obvious signs of water damage are easy to clean up, but it seeps into some places that are harder to see. If the car has a musty odor, that’s your cue to walk away. Even so, check the padding underneath the carpets and seats—it’s usually soaked with water and difficult to dry. If you see mud or dried sand, it’s evidence of water damage. If the seats have been removed to dry the carpet, the bolts to the seats will show scuff marks as evidence of removal.
Gaps between body panels are also difficult to clean and dry, and a flood-damaged car will show sand and mud debris under the hood and trunk, in and around door hinges, and on the bottom of brackets. Check the headlights, since water can seep past the rubber seals and soak the clear lens or the shiny reflector in the back. Dashboard screws may have already started rusting; if you see that, try to look behind the dash panel for water damage. If worse comes to worst, you can remove a door panel and inspect the inside of the door; on older models, these are usually removed with a few screws.
Lastly, check the drain plugs on the bottom of doors and the vehicle’s floor. If they’ve been removed to drain water they’ll be scuffed, and maybe improperly reinstalled.
Of course, any used car, regardless of hurricane warning, should be taken to a mechanic for a thorough and professional inspection. Sellers can do the same too, if they suspect that their car has been damaged by rising floodwaters and want to preserve their image as an honest, decent human being. A clean bill of health from a professional can mean the difference between a successful sale and a legal snafu, possibly involving financial penalties or jail time. Lemon laws are nothing to scoff at.
If you’ve taken this guide to heart and inspected the car bumper to bumper, inside and out, your loafers may indeed have gotten wet. But it’s better to get your feet wet inspecting the car, than miles down the road when Irene’s wrath rears her ugly head.