With three recent hurricanes that caused catastrophic damage in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, news footage of cars submerged in water has been a common sight. But what happens to those cars after the floodwaters recede, and how can you be sure that you aren't buying one of them a few months down the road?

We have some tips for inspecting a used vehicle that can help you avoid buying a flood-damaged car or truck.

What Happens to Flooded Vehicles?

Insurance companies typically declare flooded vehicles as total losses, because repairing and refurbishing a flooded vehicle is an expensive undertaking. Electricity and water don't mix. Water damage can significantly impact a vehicle's reliability and life expectancy, and it could happen years after the purchase when the unsuspecting buyer has no options for justice. As a used car buyer, you should try to avoid flooded vehicles at all costs.

After the vehicle is declared as a total loss and the owner is compensated by his or her insurance company, things can get murky. Unscrupulous middlemen buy these cars with the intent of "title washing" to disguise the flood damage and selling them in states unaffected by the flood. They accomplish this by moving vehicles through states with different regulations on title branding so that the "flood" or "junk" status of the car gets washed away.

While the number of cars flooded by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma combined can't yet be counted, some sources report 500,000 cars were impacted in Texas, and we can likely expect that number or more in Florida. In all senses, this is a time for the buyer to beware. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is!

As Richmond auto accident attorneys and personal injury lawyers, we want to help you avoid buying a flood-damaged vehicle, which can be dangerous to operate. Following are some tips for spotting flooded or junked vehicles that may have been repaired and refurbished.

How to Spot a Refurbished Flooded Vehicle

  1. Check the Vehicle's Title. The Texas and Florida motor vehicle departments will brand cars with severe water damage on the vehicle's title papers. A "salvage" or "junk" title is a good indication that the vehicle has been through serious damage and declared a total loss by an insurance company. A "flood" title means that the car suffered severe damage from sitting in deep water that penetrated and likely corroded its engine compartment.
  2. Pulling a Vehicle History Report is a Best Practice. Unscrupulous used car sellers are smart enough to take flooded vehicles far away from the flood regions where buyers are more likely to suspect water damaged vehicles may be on the market. Flood-damaged cars are more likely to turn up on small lots or through private-party trades than on larger, established dealer lots. In all cases, when buying a used car, it's a best practice to pull a vehicle history report from companies such as Carfax or Autocheck. These reports can help confirm whether the car in question suffered flood damage.
  3. Verify Functionality of All Vehicle Electrical Systems. Water and electricity don't mix―this makes a vehicle's electrical systems extremely vulnerable to flood damage. Check the car or truck's electrical system functionality by turning it on and off several times. Do the headlights, brake lights, turn signals and interior lights all work? How about the car's instrument panel – does every indicator work and register accurately? Do the power door locks work correctly? Do the windows go up and down smoothly? How about the sound system?
  4. Search for Signs of Unusual Water Damage. Floodwater does all sorts of things to vehicles; some are obvious, some are not. Look for unusual stains on the upholstery that wouldn't result from a typical drink spill. Check to see if the carpet and upholstery are two different colors, which could indicate the car sat in standing water. Water staining on all or most of the seats could indicate a problem. Brand-new upholstery in an older car is also suspect. Use your nose, too: moldy or musty smells are a dead giveaway. Is there a very strong air freshener odor that might be trying to cover other odors? It's also smart to run the air conditioner or heat to check for the smell of mold.
  5. Check for Signs of Water Buildup or Rust. Is there fog, signs of water vapor or even puddles of water inside the headlights or taillights? Is there rust under the hood or anywhere in the trunk, including under the lids of both compartments? How about the spare tire well? Think about where water might pool in the vehicle – such as inside the wheel wells or trunk―and look there for rust or metal corrosion that would indicate water damage. Be sure to inspect the car's undercarriage: signs of premature corrosion such as rust or metal flaking, especially on a late-model vehicle, could indicate flood damage. Note: some corrosion on a car's battery terminals is typical and is not a good indicator of water damage.
  6. Check for Caked Mud or Dirt Buildup.Floodwaters leave their mark: mud or caked dirt in suspicious areas including in and around the seat tracks or even in the top of the glove compartment are surefire signs of flood damage. It's a best practice to have a mechanic inspect any car you're considering for purchase. Ask your mechanic to specifically check for dirt or grit in places such as the alternator recesses, behind wiring harnesses and in the small crevices of the engine's relays, power steering pump or starter motor.
  7. Pay Attention During Your Test Drive. Notice if there are any problems with the transmission shifting or the engine running smoothly. Check that the cruise control functions. If you have any concerns after a test drive, the car salesperson should be willing to address them. Hesitation to address any problem with the vehicle's operation or physical condition could mean they're trying to mask the car's history.

If you suspect that a used car salesperson is knowingly trying to sell a flooded, junked or salvaged car, contact State Attorney General Mark Herring's office to file a complaint. You can also contact your local police department or the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

If you have been injured at work or through the negligence of another individual or entity, contact us at (804) 999-9999 or or use the form below to connect with our legal team. We will fight to get you the justice you deserve.