How to spot cars with flood damage

Thousands of vehicles were flooded by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma last year, and many of them can likely still be found on used-car lots.

Flooded cars are often crushed or stripped for parts, while others are repaired and put back on the market. Carfax estimates that over 325,000 flooded cars were back on the road in 2017, up about 20% compared to the prior year. An estimated half of all flooded vehicles in the U.S. are cleaned and put up for sale.

When flooded cars are refurbished, it’s important for car shoppers to know that flood damage legally must be disclosed on a car’s title. Websites including Carfax and Kelley Blue Book offer tools that buyers can use to check a vehicle for past repairs, open recalls and other information. Buyers simply need to provide the vehicle identification number (VIN) or the car’s license plate number and state.

Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, said it’s more likely in theory to find water-damaged cars in states prone to flooding. But consumers across the country should be on the lookout for signs that a vehicle was flooded—even if the title doesn’t show it. Many buyers have been duped by shady sellers who repaired flooded cars and shipped them to another state, where they received a new inspection and a clean title.

A musty odor and mud or silt in odd places could be signs that water got to places where it shouldn’t. Shoppers should check the seat tracks, dashboard and, if possible, the lower part of the door panel for dirt. Also check the cracks of the seat by pulling back the fabric or leather, especially where the lower cushion meets the seatback. Rust is another troublesome sign.

Most buyers should steer clear of flooded cars. For bargain hunters willing to take on the risk, a once-flooded vehicle can offer significant savings.

“It comes down to price. If the market value for a three-year old car is $23,000, and you’ve got one that’s fully acknowledged to be flood-damaged and was fully repaired and you can get it for $15,000, you give yourself a cushion,” Brauer told FOX Business, adding that consumers should be fully aware of the vehicle’s history before making a decision.

Dealerships might be willing to offer a warranty, so buyers should evaluate their options if they want extra protection against unforeseen mechanical problems.