How to avoid cars with flood damage

At least 500,000 vehicles are expected to be declared a total loss from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. You can try to dry and repair a flooded car but I recommend you just avoid them.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
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Brian Cooley
2 min read

The U.S. has never seen such a flood of flooded cars. At least 500,000 vehicles are expected to be declared a total loss from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. You can try to dry and repair a flooded car but I recommend you just avoid them. With the degree of electronics and wiring in modern vehicles, every system, from the fuel injection system to the fuel door release, is susceptible to the problems when a car gets wet where it shouldn't.

Here's a quick checklist for avoiding soggy vehicles: 

  • Examine the car's title. Any reputable dealer or seller will let you know the car has a Salvage or Flood branded title from water incursion. That's establish on the car's state record once an insurance company has made that declaration. Note that this entire scenario has a big loophole:
  • Cars that never saw an insurance adjuster, either because they weren't insured or the owner knew what would happen when a claim was made on a flooded car, may end up on the private market after being dried out and cleaned up.  This non-insurance loophole is one of the most troublesome.
  • Check the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, NMVTIS, which is a free online database run by the DOJ. The car's title history should live here, inviolably. But, again, if it never saw an insurance adjuster, it could remain off the radar on NMVTIS. Also, a handful of states still don't fully comply with NMVTIS reporting so their flooded cars may not show up in it, but that is the minority of states.
  • Run an enhanced report on any car you are serious about. These are available from services live Autocheck and Carfax and will give you a timeline of where the car has been over its life, based on things like maintenance, inspection, smog check and repair history. That record may help you determine if the car was in a flood zone during a flood.  
  • Beware of title washing. Not all states handle vehicle titles the same way, meaning it is possible to take a flooded car from one state, register it in one of a few other states that operate differently than the state the car came from, and the car will loose its Salvage or Flood status. 
  • Look, and smell.  Pull up carpets, not just mats, look in the very bottom of the trunk, examine the bolts that hold the seats down, and look under the dash for grime or evidence of a faint water line. And smell for mildew and mold - or strong scents used to make those. 

Taking your chances on a really cheap flood salvaged car may seem tempting, especially as massive scrappage of hundreds of thousands of them drives up the prices of dry used cars, but I would pass on the temptation. Water + electronics = a car that may never run right and is always in the shop.