Beware of Flooded Cars Resurfacing for Sale on a Car Lot Near You

While some states require disclosure of flood damage on a car's title, others don't

Beware of Flooded Cars Resurfacing for Sale on a Car Lot Near You
Image: Pixabay
September 11, 2018

We've all seen images of cars submerged under several feet of water following severe storms and natural disasters. Have you ever wondered what happens to those cars once the floodwater recedes and everything dries out? Unfortunately, a number of them will be turning up for sale on the Internet or at car lots halfway across the country, with no mention to potential buyers that they were once deeply submerged in dirty water.

Disclosure of flood damage

Although some states require disclosure of flood damage or salvage on a car title, other states do not, so you may not be able to rely on the car title for that information. Title paperwork is sometimes unlawfully altered to remove any notation of flood damage. In other cases, flood vehicles from states that do not have this requirement or that have vague title branding (an obscure number or code as opposed to the wording "salvage" or "flood") can end up in North Carolina with a 'clean' title. So you might be buying a vehicle from a previous owner who truly believes the vehicle's title is clean when in fact it had previous damage.

It's best to be a cautious buyer and check out the car carefully before you buy. Since flood damage can be hard to spot, it's a good idea to consider paying an expert mechanic to inspect it for you.

North Carolina's Law

Under North Carolina law, flood damage to a car must be disclosed in writing before the car is sold. Vehicles that have been partially or totally submerged in water resulting in damage to the body, engine or transmission are classified as flood vehicles.

Failure to disclose flood damage to a vehicle in North Carolina or removing the title or supporting documents with the intent to conceal damage, repaired or otherwise, is a class 2 misdemeanor with penalties of up to $5,000 per violation. Anyone who reconstructs a total loss claim vehicle and does not affix a "TOTAL LOSS CLAIM VEHICLE" tamperproof permanent marker to the doorjamb, or who removes, tampers with, alters, or conceals it, can be charged with a Class I felony with fines of at least $5,000 per violation.

Warning signs of a flooded car

Below are a few simple steps from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that you can take to help protect yourself:

  • See: if there are any high-water or mud marks on the engine, the wheel wells, the trunk or even the glove box. Get a flashlight and take a look in those hard-to-reach places that might not have been cleaned. Lift up the carpet and look underneath for mud, rust or dirt.
  • Smell: the upholstery and the carpeting. Do they smell funky? Also, turn on the heat and see if there's an electric/burning smell that might come from damaged wires. And turn on the AC and see if you get a blast of mildew-scented air.
  • Feel: the wires under the dashboard and in the engine (obviously when the car is turned off!). Do they feel brittle? That may be the result of immersion in water.
  • Listen: to the sound system/radio. If it sounds bad or isn't working at all, that could be a sign of water damage. Ask why it's not working.
  • Ask: the seller outright if the car was ever in a flood. While they may not have volunteered the information, they may be reluctant to lie when asked directly.
  • Consider: buying a vehicle history report that should tell you if the car's been in a flood or issued a salvage title. Remember that vehicle history reports only show things that were reported.

Related: How to Find Hidden Accident and Flood Damage on Cars

Safety risks

It's important to realize that this isn't just an issue of a bad-smelling car. Water can contaminate fluids and damage the vehicle's electrical components. Unfortunately, water damage doesn't typically show up right away. It can take years for malfunctions to start showing up, especially if the water was fresh water as opposed to the more corrosive salt water.

If you are driving a vehicle that was previously flooded, you could find yourself with a host of electrical issues down the road. You could face minor annoyances, such as switches that don't work anymore or a radio that suddenly dies. Or you could face malfunctions that affect the modules that control your vital components, such as how your engine, transmission or even air bags operate. Worse yet is that these vehicles do not have a warranty of any kind, so you could start shelling out thousands of dollars for repairs. Modern cars have a lot of modules, and some can cost upwards of $2,000 each to replace.

Buying a car is one of the biggest purchases you'll make. Don't put your hard-earned money into a flood-damaged car. You'll almost certainly face huge repair bills down the road.