If there’s one thing we can count on after a devastating super storm, it’s that the used-car market will be flooded with water-damaged cars. Scammers probably begin dumping affected cars into the used-car inventory within days of a storm’s landfall. Used-vehicle shoppers searching within a few hundred miles of the storm should be particularly wary, but it’s not just shoppers in the affected regions who should increase their vigilance. Savvy 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 flood cars will find their way into every corner of the country.
Flood damage can ruin a vehicle in any number of ways, from eating away the electronics wiring to seizing up mechanical systems, and the damage may not reveal itself for months or even years. Corrosion and rust are insidious, often eating away at sheet metal and components from the inside out. Obviously, not every used car coming out of storm-affected areas will be damaged, but many that are won’t show outward signs of water trauma.
There are some precautions a used-car shopper can take to minimize, if not 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.
This is best accomplished by a qualified mechanic; however, 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.
Some Signs to Look For
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 good sign the car has been under water.
If you suspect you are looking at a flood-damaged vehicle, the smart move is to just walk away. If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. The alternative is to spring for the cost of having a mechanic give it the once over.