Beware Masquerading Flood-Damaged Cars From Texas

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 09, 2015

Looks bad? It was worse, because an estimated 10,000 cars ended up like this.Remember the big floods in Texas? C’mon, couldn’t have missed them, it was only a few weeks ago. The state was hit with four weeks of huge storms that turned 37 counties into disaster areas.

The late Stevie Ray Vaughn predicted it, adding telephone connectivity problems. “Well there's floodin' down in Texas/All of the telephone lines are down/Well there's floodin' down in Texas/All of the telephone lines are down/And I've been tryin' to call my baby/Lord and I can't get a single sound.”

The water has receded now, and on the positive side the epic storms ended the state’s drought. One negative aftershock is likely to reverberate for a long time, though—flood-damaged cars.

Even the floods are big in Texas. (Kaleb Fulgham/Flickr)According to Christopher Basso of CARFAX, the group that issues those “where has my car been” reports, “Thousands of flooded cars from water-ravaged areas in Texas, Oklahoma and other states are likely to resurface in cities and towns across the U.S starting now. That’s in addition to the nearly quarter-million flood cars back in use after other storms.”

The Detroit Bureau estimates that 10,000 trucks and cars (in that order in Texas) were flooded out. They’re supposed to go to junkyards, but Basso claims that people would rather try and make a quick buck by letting the water out, shampooing the seats and carpets, and shipping the dubious “used car bargain” out of state.

"Unfortunately,” says the National Insurance Crime Bureau (love the name), “some of the flooded vehicles may be purchased at bargain prices, cleaned up, and then taken out of state where the VIN [vehicle identification number] is switched and the car is retitled with no indication it has been damaged.”

Car Talk has run across flood-damaged cars before, and advised that “you may see mineral deposits or discoloration on the seats, seatbelts or door panels. There may be droplets of moisture on the inside of the instrument cluster or warped or misshapen door panels (if they’re made of fiberboard). None of these are good signs for the future health of your ride.”

Merely opening the doors and letting the water isn't enough for "as good as new."Of course, car sneaks are subtler than this, and they’ll probably have cleaned up all these things. Even a clean title doesn’t mean all that much, because the car will have crossed state lines where it can easily be “title washed” and re-registered with no signs of a troubled past. One good solution, then, is to use a service like CARFAX to find out where the car was last registered.

These are some of the other steps you’re supposed to take to avoid being burned by this hustle:
  • Check for a salvage title with a VIN checker.
  • Look for signs of recent surface rust underneath the car (around screws, for instance), and for water stains inside—even as high as the headliner.
  • Examine tiny crevices for sand or dirt left by the rushing water.
  • Crank the stereo, because cardboard speaker cones will be kayoed by water.
  • Eyeball the seatbelt retractors for telltale signs.
Is a flooded car junk? “Pretty much, yes,” we say. If water got into the engine and transmission, both are toast. The computer equipment increasingly important for your car to run (living low down under the seats and dashboard) is very sensitive to water intrusion, too.

All this doesn’t mean you’ll see problems right now. No, they’ll lurk unseen, waiting for you to pay good money for the car, then reveal themselves. Car Talk speaks: “Our best advice is to simply avoid used cars that have come from the flooded areas.” Of course, knowing where the car came from is the first hurdle.


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