How to avoid buying a flood car

It's expected that thousands of cars damaged in Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will be put on the used car market in the coming months. These flood cars will be cleaned up, repaired, and shipped across the country. Because of our lax vehicle title laws, a substantial number of these flood vehicles will likely end up in Minnesota and sold fraudulently. Flood cars present significant performance and safety issues for unsuspecting buyers. For example, a vehicle's electrical and computer systems--including brake and steering systems--are often compromised by water damage. Water submersion may also cause damage to the vehicle's frame or structural components and often leads to mold growth in the car's interior. These problems may not appear for months or even years. Here are some tips to avoid unwittingly buying a flood car:

Inspect the vehicle closely for signs of flood damage

  • Musty or moldy smell;

  • Rust or flaking metal on the vehicle's undercarriage;

  • Electrical components, such as radio, speakers, windshield wipers, or door locks that don't work;

  • Any signs of water damage, mud, sand, or silt.

Do your homework

  • CarFax reports contain information about the vehicle's history, including where it came from. Consumers should be extremely wary of a vehicle from South Florida, Houston, or other flood-damaged areas.

  • The National Crime Bureau keeps a database of vehicles reported as salvaged by many insurance companies. Consumers may search the database for free using the vehicle's VIN number.

Keep in mind that these reports do not always provide a complete picture of the vehicle and there is often a lag between when a vehicle is, say in a flood, and when that information shows up in a database.

Ask the dealer lots of questions, including

  • Whether the vehicle has been in a flood. Keep in mind that a flood car may have a clean title, so don't rely on the dealer's misleading answer that the vehicle is a "clean title vehicle." Insist on a straight answer to your question.

  • Whether the vehicle has a branded title. Some flood cars--but not all--will have a title "brand" on them to notify buyers of flood damage.

  • Whether they've inspected the vehicle for possible flood damage. Again, get specific answers to exactly what they inspected and when.

Trust your instincts

Don't be pressured into a hasty decision and trust your gut. If you have a bad feeling about the condition of the vehicle or doubt what the salesperson is telling you, simply walk away. There are a lot of quality used vehicles out there.