Flood-Damaged Cars: Warning Signs and Title Issues

Fortune estimates that nearly one million vehicles were flood-damaged after Hurricane Irma and Harvey in 2017. Then, thousands of cars were damaged in 2018 because of Florence’s floods according to the Journal Sentinel. The assumption most people make is that these flood-damaged cars end up in the junkyard, but that’s not always the case.

Some end up repaired and then resold in other areas of the country where the buyer wouldn’t suspect it has a water-logged history. That’s why it’s imperative that you know what to look for and understand the titling issues that go along with flood-damaged cars.

Even if you can get behind the wheel of one of these water-damaged vehicles for a reasonable amount of money, you may not want to.

How Can You Tell if a Car Has Been Flood Damaged?

Water damage isn’t always easy to detect, but there are some signs that you specifically want to be aware of when trying to determine if a vehicle has been flood-damaged.

Look at the Carpets

This material tends to reveal waterlogged properties more than anywhere else. If an older vehicle has brand new carpeting inside, you have to ask yourself why.

Otherwise, inspect it for a musty smell or caked-on mud. You’ll also want to look at the screws which mount the seats. If there’s a reason to believe they were once removed, you can assume that the seats were taken out so the carpet could dry or be replaced.

The seat bolts might also be rusty, a telltale sign of water damage.

Inspect the Lights

Sometimes, you can still see the visible waterline on the reflectors or lenses. Of course, it’s also possible that the person fixing up the car replaced these, so you should also be wary if the vehicle comes with all new lights installed.

Check Hard to Clean Areas

Dig deep and inspect areas that aren’t so easy to get to. You’ll want to look for debris or mud under the hood and in the gaps found between panels in the car’s trunk. Make sure you inspect the bottom edges of panels and brackets where you wouldn’t typically find a large amount of grime.

This is also a good time to inspect the exposed, unpainted screws that are found underneath the dash. Bare metal, such as this, often shows signs of rust if it’s been involved in a flood.

Check the Rubber Drain Plugs

There are rubber drain plugs located at the bottom of the car doors and under the vehicle. If they appear to have been removed, it might be that the owner was draining out floodwater.

Can You Fix Flood Damaged Cars?

Let’s say your car was damaged in a flood, or you’ve found a flood-damaged car you’re considering buying as-is. If you don’t have coverage to compensate you for the flood-damaged car, you might be considering repairing it.

While it’s possible in some cases, it isn’t always the ideal solution. Of course, the final determination would be the level of damage you are facing. Certainly, if your car experienced a mild amount of dampness, you shouldn’t have an issue making it like new again. If however, the car sat in deep flood waters, your problems might be never-ending.

The Big Question: Freshwater or Saltwater?

One of the main concerns is whether the flood waters were freshwater or saltwater. While you hope for neither, freshwater damage tends to be less catastrophic than saltwater. Salt is a corrosive agent and it destroys mechanical components plus your car’s interior. In particular, you must worry about the electrical aspects and your engine more than with fresh water.

Sometimes, a freshwater flood-damaged car just needs to be dried out. On the other hand, saltwater flooding would require that you flush out the entire vehicle with freshwater to remove the salt. This leads to expensive and severe levels of damage.

Cosmetic or Mechanical?

Finally, you have to determine if the damage is strictly cosmetic or mechanical in nature. If you have cosmetic damage such as water-logged leather or soaking wet carpets, you might be able to repair it. Mechanical damage is going to cause massive repair bills and often ends up causing more problems than it’s worth. If the intake took on water, you might end up with bent piston rods or eventually a blown engine.

Is a Flood Damaged Car Worth Buying? Can You Title One?

You might find a good deal on a flood-damaged car, but is it worth buying? Furthermore, will you be able to title it?

In most states, cars that are damaged by flooding are considered a total loss. That’s why they often carry a salvage title with them. Some states even have a separate branding for these, such as water-damaged, to alert potential buyers that they aren’t typical cars.

This brand should remain on the vehicle for its lifetime, but that isn’t always the case. For example, sellers can take advantage of the Minnesota Title Loophole to sell previously damaged flood vehicles with a clean title, as if nothing ever happened.

What is Title Washing?

Because it’s possible to brand a vehicle with different terminology in varying states, many scammers participate in title washing. Let’s say that you have a flood-damaged car in Texas. You could erase that history simply by jumping the title to a state where that branding isn’t recognized.

With a complete vehicle history report, you can get the whole picture of what’s happened with this car in the past, helping to save you from accidentally buying a flood-damaged car.

How Do You Protect Yourself From Flood-Damaged Vehicles?

If you’ve decided you don’t want to buy a flood-damaged car, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself from buying one accidentally.

1. Check the VIN

You want to run a vehicle history report to ensure the car doesn’t have a flood-damaged history.

2. Do a Complete Inspection

If your vehicle comes back clean, proceed to this step. If you aren’t sure what to look for, make sure you take a qualified mechanic with you. Here are the top signs of flood damage in a car:

  • Foggy lights

  • Dirt in seatbelt locks or around the belts themselves

  • Stained, moldy or wet carpet

  • Strange, musty odor

  • Rust in areas you wouldn’t expect, such as the trunk latch

  • Water lines under the hood

3. Trust Your Instincts

If anything doesn’t seem right about the car or the person selling it, trust your gut. Ask lots of questions and listen carefully to the answers. Often, it’s not as hard as you would think to tell when someone isn’t being honest.

Bottom Line

We all want to get a great deal on our next car, but buying a flood-damaged vehicle isn’t the way to do it. Even if the car looks like it’s in great shape, there could be underlying issues that you won’t see right away.

If you’ve ever dealt with a car’s electrical complications, you know what a headache they can be to repair. It’s simply not worth the time and hassle you could face.

Most flood-damaged cars belong in a junkyard, but plenty are still out there on the roads today. Protect yourself and your investment by taking the steps necessary to ensure you don’t waste your money on a car with a water-logged history.


Title Gods specializes in recovering lost car titles and solving all kinds of title-related issues. We are not attorneys. This article is not legal advice.

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