Warning Signs That A Used Car Was Once Flooded

Many cars were flooded during Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma — here's what to look out for if you're buying a used car.

Houston Area Begins Slow Recovery From Catastrophic Harvey Storm Damage
Getty Images | Joe Raedle

Hundreds of thousands of cars were flooded in hurricanes Harvey and Irma last fall in Texas and Florida.

Most have since been scrapped for parts. But some get a second life, sold to unsuspecting buyers at used car lots, some of them hundreds of miles from where they were flooded months earlier.

Steve Porter believes he just got stuck with one: A 2005 Chevy Van with low miles and a very low price.

But just one day after his purchase from a “buy here, pay here” used car lot, Porter said warning lights started coming on.

“The first thing we noticed was for ABS and the air bags,” he said. “Then it was the check engine light.”

Knew it had issues, but not flood damage

Porter knew when he bought it that the underside had some rust, and the engine bay had what looked like a light coating of road salt in it, which he figured meant the car came from a northern state, where salt is used.

But when he took it to a repair shop, the mechanic told him it wasn’t road salt, but sea salt causing his troubles.

So the mechanic helped him find a Carfax report, where they learned the van was located in the Florida Keys last fall in the midst of Hurricane Irma.

It was then sold at auction as “salvage,” according to the Carfax report.

“The insurance company ran it up as a complete loss and labeled it a salvage and flood damaged vehicle,” Porter said.

But he didn’t know that at the time of purchase, he says, because he didn’t want to splurge for a Carfax report, and the dealer only said it had a “rebuilt” title. Rebuilt was OK with Porter, as long as it was legal and could be registered.

As with many flood damaged cars, this one looked good inside: in fact the dashboard and rubber floor mats were even shiny with Armor All.

Warning signs of a flooded car

But Carfax’s Chris Basso says it’s very easy to hide the telltale signs of a flood.

“Flooded cars literally rot from the inside out,” he told us in a special report last fall. “But cosmetically, on the outside, they can look like any used car on the road.”

Basso says warning signs include:

  • Sand or salt in the engine bay
  • Sand or salt under the spare tire in the trunk, if it has a spare
  • Rust under the seats
  • Moisture bubbles trapped in the tail lights

The dealer who sold Porter the van tells us he informed him that he was buying a “rebuilt salvage,” which is why the price was so low. The dealer stated he had no idea it had been a flood car, because the word flood does not appear on the title.

Only a Carfax or similar history report would show flooding.

But this is why you have to be extra diligent this year buying a used car.

Inspect the title, pay for a Carfax report and be very suspicious of cars from extreme south Florida or the Houston area, so you don’t waste your money.

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