Public Affairs

AAA warns buyers to be wary of flooded vehicles

Black and white photo of a car submerged in water

After widespread flooding during Hurricane Harvey, thousands of vehicles with hidden damage may soon hit the used car market

AAA is warning car buyers about the danger of purchasing used vehicles damaged by flood waters during Hurricane Harvey. The storm's torrential rains are estimated to have damaged hundreds of thousands of cars, with more than 100,000 auto claims already filed with national insurance companies. Vehicle flooding often results in difficult and expensive repairs, so private vehicle owners, auto dealers, and car auction managers now face the difficult decision of whether to restore or scrap flooded vehicles.

The Auto Club warns car buyers that flood-damaged vehicles can be shipped anywhere for resale, may show up just weeks after a devastating storm, and can continue to appear in the marketplace for up to a year or more after a major flood. Because they move to market so quickly, these vehicles are often not identified as flood-damaged in national databases. Some states require dealers to disclose known flood damage, but refurbishers intent on deception can clean up the more obvious evidence.

Telltale signs that car buyers should look for include mud or residue under the dashboard; musty odors inside doors, in the cabin, or trunk; and mud or grit behind under-hood components such as the alternator, starter motor, or power-steering pump. But even if mildewed carpeting or a ruined alternator is replaced, flooding can do permanent damage to sensitive electronics that manage the engine's operation or control such safety components as air bags and antilock brakes, and such damage might not show up for months or years.

Where to check for flood damage history

Get a Carfax vehicle history report. Carfax can potentially reveal if the vehicle has been involved in a flood, major accident, fire, or odometer fraud. With Carfax, prospective buyers can enter a vehicle's 17-character vehicle identification number (VIN) and check if it was registered in a disaster area or has had its title marked “flood damaged.”

Check the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. The Justice Department has significantly reduced “title-washing” from state to state by requiring insurers to register vehicles designated total losses in this system. Most states participate; Hawai'i, Oregon, Kansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Vermont, and Washington D.C. currently do not. 

Check the database of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which contains a list of vehicles and watercraft affected by recent hurricanes. This information is free.

Tips for avoiding flood-damaged vehicles

  • Smell around for damp or musty odors inside the vehicle. Look out for the overuse of fragrant car fresheners.
  • Are the windows fogged up? Are any of the dashboard gauges fogged up? Has the carpet or upholstery been replaced or recently shampooed? Pull back the carpet at different areas and look for mud, dirt, or water stains.
  • Inspect the dashboard underside for signs of mud and dirt; this is a particularly hard area to clean.
  • In drier climates, look under the vehicle for light rust on unpainted metal surfaces, which is uncommon in newer vehicles driven in dry areas like the Southwest.
  • Open all the doors, the hood, and the trunk to inspect for light rust or corrosion, mud, and dirt or discoloration on the door frames, hinges, and under the weather stripping. Pay special attention to small spaces and crevices that are difficult to clean. 
  • Check all the window motors, electrical components, and warning lights on the dash to ensure they work properly. While a non-working part alone doesn't mean the vehicle was flooded, it's cause for concern when combined with other indicators.
  • Always take a thorough test drive and have the vehicle inspected by a quality repair facility prior to purchasing. AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities are located across the United States. Find a nearby location.
  • Buy a certified used car or truck—one covered by an automaker warranty, not just an individual car dealer—because automakers preclude flood-damaged cars from their certified-car programs. 
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