Don't make a $10,000 mistake. Tips on how to spot flood-damaged cars

CarMax purchasing manager Ted Walker demonstrates how to check for tell-tale signs of a flood-damaged vehicle. Vehicles damaged by hurricanes Harvey and Irma or by regional flooding could make their way to the Kansas City-area market.
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CarMax purchasing manager Ted Walker demonstrates how to check for tell-tale signs of a flood-damaged vehicle. Vehicles damaged by hurricanes Harvey and Irma or by regional flooding could make their way to the Kansas City-area market.


How to protect yourself from buying a hurricane-flooded car

By Donald Bradley

October 04, 2017 10:06 AM

Thinking about buying a used car?

Unless it’s Grandma’s old Buick, be mindful that a lot of flooded vehicles from hurricanes Harvey and Irma could be making their way to car lots around Kansas City.

And that’s something to be leery about, considering a car is typically a person’s second biggest expense after housing. You don’t want to pay $300 a month for something that might blow gulf water out the tail pipe.

Those swamped vehicles are supposed to be marked “flood damaged” on titles and sent to salvage yards. But the land of opportunity applies to frauds, too, and just like after Hurricane Katrina a decade earlier, some of the cars will be dried up, cleaned off, shined bright and sent north to unsuspecting buyers.

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“Your neck of the woods can expect a few hundred thousand flood cars,” said Jack Gillis at the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America.

He means the Midwest. According to Gillis, 13 million cars were in the path of the two recent hurricanes that tore through Texas, Florida and the gulf area. Obviously not all were damaged. But people here are already on guard for the ones that were.

Keep in mind, too — Kansas City saw its own flooding this summer. Those cars are ... somewhere.

Missouri state officials this week warned car shoppers to use extra caution when buying a vehicle with an unknown history. And at dealers like CarMax, the biggest seller of used cars in the country, purchasers are on alert to make sure flood-damaged vehicles don’t end up on their lots.

“We’d be naive to think it doesn’t happen in Kansas City,” CarMax purchasing manager Ted Walker said at the dealership’s location in Merriam of the possibility of flood cars showing up here. “We know how to make sure it doesn’t happen here.”

Modern-day flood water is nasty stuff. It’s dirty, muddy, contains bacteria and is likely contaminated with sewage. That water sits in concealed parts of cars and continues to cause damage for months, particularly to electronic components such as ignition, air bags, backup camera, computer systems, emergency braking and navigation.

“And those vehicles never run right again,” Gillis said.

What should happen, he said, is for owners, either individuals or dealers, to turn those cars over to insurance companies, which would then deem them total losses and send them to salvage yards for parts.

But all too often, somebody buys them in mass, cleans them up and sends them to other parts of country, Gillis said.

“We know that three out of four car buyers purchase used cars,” Gillis said. “So there’s always a market. That’s why there is a great incentive to move these cars north.”

The Missouri Attorney General’s issued a warning this week advising car shoppers to have any used vehicle checked out by an independent mechanic. At CarMax, Walker went through a “to do list” for car shoppers to make sure they don’t buy a flood car.

First off, the obvious: Smell.

As previously noted, flood water is nasty. It stinks. Sniff deep.

Look for condensation around windows. Feel under the carpet for dampness, dig into the deepest recesses of the trunk. Pull out the seat belt to its maximum length — look for a water line.

Raise the hood. Find hiding places for silt or standing water to gather. Check seat mounting screws, to see if new ones have been installed or if the old ones have been loosened.

As Walker said: “It’s not easy, but if you know where to look, a car will tell you its story.”

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182

How to detect water damage

Consumer Reports recommends that you look for some tell-tale signs in cars that have sustained flood damage:

▪ Inspect the carpets to see if they show signs of having been waterlogged, such as smelling musty or having caked-on mud. Likewise, brand-new carpets in an older vehicle may be another red flag.

▪ Check the seat-mounting screws to see if there is any evidence that they have been removed. To dry the carpets effectively, the seats must be removed and possibly even replaced.

▪ Inspect the lights. Headlights and taillights are expensive to replace, and a visible water line may still show on the lens or reflector.

▪ Find the hard-to-reach places, such as gaps between panels in the trunk and under the hood. Waterborne mud and debris may still appear in these places.

▪ Look for mud or debris on the bottom edges of brackets or panels, where it wouldn’t settle normally.

▪ Check under the hood. Water lines and debris can appear in hard-to-clean places, such as behind the engine.

▪ Look for any unpainted, exposed screws under the dashboard. Unpainted metal in flood cars will show signs of rust.

▪ See if rubber drain plugs under the car and on the bottom of doors look as if they have been recently removed. That may have been done to drain floodwater.