This happens after every major flood: tens of thousands of cars are inundated by storm surge or rising waters due to heavy rain. Insurers declare them total losses and resell them to salvage companies.
Many end up in scrap yards, where reusable parts are stripped and the remains are ground up.
Others, however, are bought at deep discounts by low-volume flippers who air them out and polish them as best they can before posting them on Craigslist or parking them in a corner with a For Sale sign in the window.
Many sellers won’t tell you the vehicle was flooded and hope you won’t ask. But you should be aware: “These cars literally rot from the inside out,” according to Emile Voss, spokesman for vehicle history provider Carfax.
Before Hurricane Ian, Florida had more flood-damaged cars on its roads — 33,500 — than any other state except Texas, according to Carfax. And nearly half of those Florida flood-damaged cars were in the South Florida metro area, Voss said.
After Ian, those numbers are expected to increase over the next few months, Voss said.
Of the 553,244 property damage claims related to Ian registered through Oct. 19 by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, 123,299 were for damage to passenger cars, according to a spokeswoman for the office.
Ian could be responsible for damaging up to 358,000 cars nationwide, Carfax said in a recent press release. Many will join the 400,000 water-damaged vehicles already on the country’s roads.
Carfax is one of several automotive-focused organizations warning consumers to exercise caution when buying a used vehicle in the coming months. You don’t want to have to diagnose and fix water-related issues in the months and years after you buy your car, they say.
Kelly Blue Book says, “Water can destroy electrical and mechanical systems, lubricants, and cause mold, rust, and corrosion over time.
David dos Santos, owner of Japanese Auto Care Specialists in Margate, Fla., said flooding issues might not be apparent immediately after the water recedes and the car dries out.
“You could bring me a car that was flooded yesterday, and I wouldn’t see any symptoms,” he said. Flood damage, he said, “can be difficult to identify, even if it happened two or three months ago.”
But within six to eight months, flooded cars turn into “nightmares”, he says, as the trapped moisture oxidizes and corrodes the pins, wires and circuit boards that relay driver commands.
Salt water is especially damaging, says Kelly Blue Book, “because of the corrosive effect it can have on rubber hoses and wiring.” Cars that sit in salt water for any length of time “can develop serious problems with electrical systems and brakes,” he says.
Research firm Cox Automotive estimates around 50,000 vehicles were severely damaged by Ian – a large number, but only a fraction of the 300,000 vehicles severely damaged when Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area for 48 hours in 2017 .
When a vehicle in Florida is flooded and reported to the owner’s insurance company, the insurance company is required to mark the title as “rescue flood”. Trademark information must be uploaded to Florida’s Motor Vehicle Information Verification Database and the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System so that potential buyers can enter an information number on the vehicle (VIN) and see the brand.
Dealerships are required to disclose in writing whether a vehicle has been marked, but fraudulent sellers can rebrand flooded cars in other states with lax disclosure laws, then bring them back to stricter states and offer them for sale. sale as used cars in good condition. This practice is known as “title washing”.
According VINCheck.infoa vehicle damage research website, states near Florida that are easy to “wash” include Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi.
Although damage histories of cars with washed titles can be discovered by checking Carfax, VINCheck and others, those services and others don’t always have complete histories, a Kelly Blue Book spokesperson said. .
“Like most fraud, it’s a cat-and-mouse game,” says Mark Schirmer, spokesman for Kelly Blue Book’s parent company, Cox Automotive Inc. “The title verification services are excellent. They prevent some fraud, but fraudsters are always looking for ways to trick credential verification services, and no one knows how often they succeed.
Flood-damaged cars can also enter the market if the owner has the vehicle repaired without filing an insurance claim.
Consumers in such situations are on their own to determine if a car they are considering has ever been flooded.
Even the tried-and-tested precaution of having a car checked by an independent mechanic before buying it might not cause water damage to electronics if the car appears to be working properly, dos Santos said. Moisture hidden in electronic components is unlikely to be detected in such cases, he said.
Big dealers like AutoNation have sophisticated testing procedures to ensure they are not selling flood damaged cars.
“We have strict procedures in place to ensure we don’t have any flooded vehicles,” AutoNation spokesman Marc Cannon said via email. “Any vehicle we take in goes through a thermal process to make sure it hasn’t been flooded.”
Meanwhile, consumers can take steps to reduce the risk of unknowingly buying a flood-damaged car:
—Consumers should check a vehicle’s history with Carfax and AutoCheck from Experian. Both companies offer free checks for flood damage. Other free tools include the Florida Motor Vehicle Information Verification Database, the Department of Justice’s Motor Vehicle Title Information System, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VINCheck service. This is a necessary step, even if the services do not always have complete information. Schirmer of Cox Automotive Inc. recommends potential buyers order a history check and have a mechanic inspect the vehicle.
—Check for water lines or signs of mud inside the vehicle. When cleaning up flood-damaged cars for resale, sellers often overlook the glove box, trunk, and under the dash. Look under the carpet for discoloration, stains and rust.
—Use your nose. A musty smell indicates that a car has been exposed to water. A strong smell of air freshener can try to mask the smell of mildew. New or freshly laundered carpets or upholstery should be considered suspect. Check them carefully for musty smells.
—Check for water or debris in the headlight housing, and for dirt and debris in small crevices under the hood. Check the engine bay for orange rust and bolts that look like they could crumble under the force of a wrench. Look for signs of electrical corrosion that has exceeded what you would expect for the age of the car. Check under the car for embedded debris, premature rust, and metal chipping. Check the brake discs for unusual rust.
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