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Auto Insurance Information Center

December 2012

How To Avoid Buying a Flood-Damaged Car

With the number and intensity of storms occurring in recent years, powerful storm surges have destroyed homes and businesses, while leaving behind overwhelming losses to many.

How to Avoid Buying a Flood-damaged Car

Something that has received less attention, however, is the number of vehicles that end up flood-damaged after these storms. Flood-damaged vehicles can be affected in numerous ways: their engine, electronic system, transmission, brakes, interior and other systems can be severely damaged when submerged in water. Unfortunately, much of the flood damage is not obvious during a quick inspection once the car has been cleaned up. We'll let you know where to begin to avoid a car that has been flood-damaged.

What to look out for

Many states require a car that has been flooded to have that information disclosed on its title. The title might be classified with the words salvage, flood or sometimes both. Other state titles might not be as easily identified; for these states a number code will be used to indicate a car has been flooded. Note that some states identify the title of any vehicle that has been submerged in water, while some states only do so if an insurance company has paid a total loss flood claim on the vehicle. Check with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators to see what the title rules are in your state.

Another thing to be aware of is that the damaged cars may not be limited to the area affected by the storm or where the flooding occurred. Auto wholesalers sometimes take cars that have been in a flood to a state that doesn't require flood designation on a new title to register them, a practice known as "title washing." To make sure you don't become a victim, there are some things you can do to protect yourself when shopping for a used car.

Government resources to help you

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, collects data from all states about vehicles that have been declared a total loss or have had their titles "branded" in some manner, including for flooding. The National Insurance Crime Bureau provides a free check by vehicle identification number (VIN) based on data provided by its member insurance companies that will flag a car if it has ever been declared a total loss from flooding or other damage.

Check a vehicle's history online

Should the search on those databases come back clean, there are still additional searches to perform to help reduce the likelihood of purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle. Check both the Carfax and AutoCheck web sites, as these companies gather reports from insurers, police departments and additional sources about accidents and disasters, including flooding. If you are considering buying from a dealership, the salespeople may be able to show you these reports for the cars you are considering. Free Carfax reports are available through websites such as AutoTrader.com and Cars.com.

Checking the vehicle itself: What to look for

In addition to checking a vehicle's history, buyers should look for the following as detailed by the National Insurance Crime Bureau and Carfax:

  • Have a mechanic inspect the vehicle on a lift to check the undercarriage for water damage or dirt/silt from floodwaters.

  • Lift up an edge of floor carpeting to see if it is wet or muddy. Look for sand, silt, or mildew under floor mats and carpets.

  • Check the trunk and under the hood to see if small pieces of mud or debris are present. When checking the trunk, look at the compartment holding the spare tire for evidence of water or mud.

  • See if the speakers in the doors work, as they are often damaged in a flooded car.

  • Look under the dashboard for signs of rust on any screws or metal parts you can see.

For more tips on identifying a flood-damaged vehicle, see the National Automobile Dealers Association website. To learn more about how you can avoid buying flood-damaged vehicles, you can also contact the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

If you believe you have purchased a vehicle that may have been damaged by flood waters, and the seller did not disclose information when asked, you can contact an attorney to try and recover your money. Best advice: if you have concerns that a vehicle might be flood-damaged, have it checked out by an expert to make sure it is mechanically sound and safe to drive before you buy. Also, report any fraudulent sellers so others are not victimized by these sellers/dealers. Remember, if a deal seems too good to be true there often times is a reason for it.

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