SmartMoney Blogs

Pay Dirt
A daily look at what we buy, how we spend, and the companies that do right - and wrong - by their customers.

Buyer Beware: Flooded Cars Flood the Market


Recent storms have given used car buyers nationwide a new reason to be cautious.

Vehicles damaged by floodwaters — as seen recently on the East Coast with hurricanes Irene and Lee, and earlier this year with record rains along the Mississippi — often turn up for sale within weeks. It’s not just a local problem either. Unscrupulous middlemen may knowingly buy the damaged cars from consumers or insurers and move them to other states to find unsuspecting buyers, warns Phil Reed, consumer advice editor for Those damaged cars may even show up on big used car lots.

At minimum, a flood-damaged car won’t be comfortable to ride in, says Reed. The upholstery is likely to mat and may accumulate mold and mildew — resulting in a pervasive musty smell. But it can also be unsafe. Headlights may be prone to fogging, and the car’s electronics — which these days, control a laundry list of features including the back-up camera, cruise control and GPS navigation — can short intermittently or conk out altogether.

But it’s easy to spot those problems, right? Not necessarily, especially since sellers try to sell most damaged cars “as soon as they’re dry,” well before any of the problems become obvious, says Reed. A buyer’s best recourse, he says, is to check the vehicle history report through free service VINCheck or a paid report company like Carfax.  States typically “brand” cars that insurance companies have declared a total loss, and many specify flooding damage where it sat in water deep enough to fill its engine compartment.

Even those titles can be faked or altered. By Carfax’s estimates, half of cars with branded titles still end up on the resale market. So follow up with a visit to your mechanic. They can inspect the underside of the car for rust, and pop the hood to see if there’s water damage in the electrical harnesses, Reed says.


We welcome thoughtful comments from readers. Please comply with our guidelines. Our blogs do not require the use of your real name.

Comments (0)

    • Be the first to leave a comment on this blog.

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to or tweet @SMPayDirt.