September 2017 is now in the record books as the most active month of any Atlantic hurricane season on record. Flooding reached near unprecedented levels in several southern states, which means it’s time to blast the buyer beware siren for car shoppers.
A recent report indicates that nearly 270,000 insurance claims linked to Hurricane Harvey vehicle damage have been reported, with another 100,000 associated with Hurricane Irma. These numbers were collected about a month after the first storm hit, so they’re sure to climb as people continue to process their damaged property. That’s nearly 400,000 (and counting) flood-damaged vehicles.
While the majority of the damaged vehicles are identified to let future owners know what they’re purchasing, many people fail to document the damage so a search of the Vehicle Identification Number shows no issues.
Follow these tips to check for signs of flood damage:
• Smell the interior for any musty or mildew smells. Trust your nose and be weary of any vehicle that has smells you think may be related to water damage.
• Look for mud or water stains in areas like in the glove box, along trim or under seats. Check for rust under the dash and throughout the vehicle’s interior.
o Check more than just the floor mats and what’s under them. If possible, pull back carpet and the padding underneath to look for rusting, stains or mold.
o Check under the carpet in the trunk. Since some cars have a spare in this area, look for any signs of standing water or rust since water would likely collect here in a flooding situation.
• When possible, look under the back seat to see evidence of water damage or mold. This area traps water when flooded and may show evidence of flood damage.
• Look for new or replaced interior parts, especially in a vehicle where you would expect substantial wear on the interior.
• Check electrical components, lights, gauges and the instrument cluster areas to ensure they are working properly. These parts of a vehicle are especially susceptible to water damage, so they may be an indicator that a vehicle has been flooded. Any one issue by itself may not mean the car has been flooded, but they may provide clues about previous damage.
• Turn the ignition key to start the car and see if the check engine light comes on for a few seconds as the car starts. If you don’t briefly see the check engine light, the light could have been tampered with to hide any warnings of engine problems. Check engine lights should come on for a few seconds when starting the car, but then turn off unless there’s an issue.
• Check the engine oil dipstick. If you see milky-looking oil, the car may have been running in flood water and pulled water into the engine. If you’re not sure what to look for, there are many examples online showing milky-looking oil compared to what oil on a dipstick should look like under normal circumstances.
• Finally, check services and websites that track title information such as CarFax.com, VehicleHistory.gov (National Motor Vehicle Title Information System) and NICB.org (National Insurance Crime Bureau). All of these sites can help you track title evidence of flood damage or salvage vehicle information for a specific VIN number.