How Can I Avoid Buying a Flood Damaged Vehicle?

How Can I Avoid Buying a Flood Damaged Vehicle?
In the last few years major hurricanes such as Katrina, Rita and Wilma have battered our country and flooded many areas of our nation. There are estimates that at least half a million vehicles were damaged by flooding from these natural disasters. Unfortunately, dishonest vehicle owners or dealers make cosmetic repairs to flood damaged vehicles and put them back on the market by selling the vehicles to auctioneers or registering them in other states without disclosing the damage. When a vehicle is moved out of the state where the damage occurred, the title gets “washed,” thus removing all evidence of flood or reconstructed title status. The vehicle with a “clean” title is then shipped to other states and sold to unsuspecting buyers. What looks like a good deal to a buyer turns into a series of costly repairs months later. Also, the vehicle poses a serious safety threat to drivers and passengers because flood damage causes non-functioning airbags, engine, brake and electrical system damage.

What is a flood damaged vehicle?
A flood damaged vehicle is one that has been completely or partially submerged in water to the extent that its body, engine, transmission or other mechanical components have been damaged. Since vehicles may have been submerged for days after the last storms, these types of vehicles pose a dangerous threat to consumers. Pennsylvania law requires motor vehicle dealers to disclose if a vehicle incurred flood damage.

How can I detect a flood damaged vehicle?
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if a vehicle is flood damaged so you should always have a trusted mechanic inspect it before buying. If the seller won’t let you take the vehicle off the lot for an inspection then walk away from the sale. Be sure to do the following before buying a used vehicle:

  • Look inside the trunk and spare tire for evidence of moisture, silt or corrosion;
  • Check the engine for moisture damage or water or grit in the engine compartment;
  • Look for dirt or dried mud under the dashboard or in air vents;
  • See whether it smells damp or musty;
  • Check under the floorboard carpet for water residue, or stain marks;
  • Look for signs of mismatched carpeting or seat covers;
  • Look for rust on screws, door hinges or seat springs – areas that would only be rusted if the vehicle was submerged in water;
  • Examine the underside of the vehicle for rust;
  • Check areas where water might have been trapped and caused mold, rust or silt such as inside dome lights or glove compartments;
  • Perform a detailed check of all electrical systems, look for brittle wire casing or rusted components or corrosion;
  • Check the vehicle’s title history; and
  • Ask the seller whether the vehicle has ever had flood damage.

Be wary of someone trying to sell a vehicle below its market value. You can also protect yourself by insisting upon a warranty or refusing to buy the vehicle on an “as is” basis. If you have any concerns about the vehicle or the answers the dealer gives you, trust yourself and don’t by the vehicle!

Are there services that can tell me if a vehicle is flood damaged?
Yes. There are three FREE services for consumers to check whether a used vehicle they are considering buying has been reported to have been damaged.

  • The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) – allows consumers to check vehicle identification numbers (VINs) to see if vehicles were affected by hurricanes Katrina, Rita or Wilma. NCIP is a non-profit organization that works with insurers, law enforcement and the public to fight insurance fraud and vehicle theft. The list is compiled from information supplied by insurance companies, state and local governments, and salvage yards. Over 165,000 vehicles have already been registered.
  • Carfax – flood is another free resource that allows consumers to check vehicles by VIN. Carfax also sells a more detailed vehicle history.
  • AutoCheck – storm provides a free “storm damage scan” service for consumers to check vehicles. When you enter a VIN the service will tell you whether the vehicle was reported as storm damaged or if the vehicle was registered or titled within 12 months prior to a storm in counties affected by the recent disasters. AutoCheck also sells a more detailed vehicle history.

If the vehicle you want to buy is on any of these lists, don’t buy it! Since all three lists get their information from different sources, be sure to run your VIN number through all three free services for a more comprehensive search.

What should I do if I bought a flood damaged vehicle?
If you suspect someone has knowingly sold a hurricane-damaged vehicle without disclosing the damage, you should do the following:

  • File a complaint with the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, Bureau of Consumer Protection send an email to or call 1-800-441-2555;
  • Call the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) toll-free hotline at 1-800-Tel.NICB (1-800-835-6422);
  • Contact your local police department; or
  • Visit Help Stop Fraud for the addresses of the appropriate investigative unit in your area that handles these types of claims (such as the district attorney’s office or local police department or task force).