By on November 2, 2012

As collateral damage of Super-Sandy, stories are making the rounds of water-logged cars dumped on unsuspecting buyers by criminal dealers. Like many fake pictures posted on Twitter and Facebook, these stories are mostly made up, or pushed by new car interests. The dangers lurk elsewhere: In your neighbor’s driveway, on eBay, in the classifieds. Read this story if you don’t want to become a belated victim of Sandy. Katrina changed the landscape when it came to flood damage vehicles. Most of the 600,000 vehicles in the zone of that hurricane were classified as flood damage by their respective insurance companies. It was law. Pure and simple. The owners of Carfax and Autocheck even went so far as to offer special warnings to buyers on any vehicle with a VIN# that was registered in the region of Katrina’s flooding. The same law applies to Sandy.

The law solved a lot. But it most certainly did not solve all problems.

There are those car owners who are transients and simply find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those cars will never get the voluntary mark of caution unless they contact their insurance company. Among them, along with the general population of a flood damaged area, you will have folks that either don’t have insurance at all or carry the minimal amount.

Flood damage plus liability equals zero payout for many folks who are now involuntarily in the market for a used car.

Some of their vehicles are flooded to the point of no reasonable return. The ones that have been damaged, but are still in running order, are usually either traded in to dealerships of varying types. Or sold to folks who simply don’t know any better.

A lot can be said for the watermarks you can find in carpets that are exposed to sitting water over the course of time. The noxious smells that remain in a car after a flood, and even the absolute destructive nature of all things saltwater to electronics, seals and metals. Although the damage to electronics is often immediate and irreversible, the other two simply work their magic over the course of time.

The damage to those major components along with the braking and steering systems are what will turn a once perfectly good car into a rolling deathtrap.

Everyone imagines someone taking out the carpet and simply power washing their way out of the damage. Even if the damage was apparently low around the car’s beltline, the amount of work needed to replace everything will still be extensive.

In the real world you may be looking at a replaced carpet, a scrubbing and bleaching down of the bare metal, sometimes replaced seats, certain suspension components, brake lines, tire related sensors. sensors, and a few other choice components. Unfortunately, the ones who do this type of work may prioritize their own financial interest over your future well-being.

So for those of you who are looking for a break on a flood damaged car that has seemingly little more than minor cosmetic issues, my advice is to steer clear. Stay far, far away.

Many of the models that are popular in overseas markets, and still in running order, will wind up exported. While a few of those that are perhaps more in lines with purely domestic tastes will remain in the domestic market. A treatise can be written on how to spot flood damage vehicles. 99% of you will simply be better off with the cliff notes version that can be found right here. Along with this should come two big sentences that should repeated like a mantra whenever buying a used car.

“Always get a vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic. Preferably one that specializes in that particular marque.”

If a mechanic sees hundreds of versions of the same vehicle over the course of the year, it will usually be a lot easier for them to identify flood damage related issues than if they saw hundreds of vehicles of varying types.

Familiarity breeds knowledge when it comes to cars. So get any car you want to buy inspected; regardless of whether you suspect flood damage or anything else.




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30 Comments on “Hammer Time: The Used Car Flood After Sandy, And How Not To Get Soaked...”

  • avatar
    Joe McKinney

    As I posted the other day, it is a good thing those flooded Fiskers burned to the ground so they cannot be cleaned up and sold.

  • avatar

    A friend in the insurance business once told me their company totals any car that had water up to the center of the wheel. Reason being many cars have computers/electronics mounted low in the kick panels which would be damaged by this. The other reason is electrical damage isn’t always noticeable right away, it might take days to months for corrosion to set in causing all kinds of weird problems, which then become a nightmare for the insurance companies to sort out later long after the flood incident. As an adjuster he had to total a clients perfect BMW 535is, the owner was blown away as no visible damage was apparent.

    • 0 avatar

      That gives me a great idea:
      – Buy new range rover
      – Offroad it immediately (preferably before first payment) driving through a puddle deeper than the centerline of the wheel
      – Have the insurance total the car
      – Pay the salvage fee to keep the car

      Alternatively, buy any car, donk it such that the centerline of the wheel is below the rocker panel, and execute plan described above. Convert back to a real car afterwards.

      Think of the savings!

  • avatar

    I saw on TV a whole lot full of yellow Panthers in the water. Yet I haven’t seen anything here about any period of mourning for this senseless loss of these precious treasures. Maybe because they’re waterproof? Indestructable? :-)

    • 0 avatar

      i dont know how it works at your locale but in some cases this can work out well for the owner… you take the check minus a small salvage fee for keeping the car… you keep your beloved 535is

    • 0 avatar

      About a month or two ago, I read a blog (maybe here) about a lot full of brand new Panther cabs in NYC which were purchased because the cab company wanted to “stock up” since the car was going out of production. In the flood photos I saw, if you look closely, you can see that these cars are unlettered and still have the Mulroney sticker in the left rear windows. Though there are far more regretful aspects of Sandy, it’s sad to see that these new cabs, the last of their breed, are now nothing but junk. I’ll bet that there are several law enforcement agencies that had stockpiled new Panthers and are in the same situation.

      • 0 avatar

        Unless there are laws about taxi companies using cars on salvage titles, I don’t think flooding will ruin their usefulness as cabs. I used to take a NYC cabs to work every day. Many of them had non-functioning power windows and smelled like they’d been submerged in waste water.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      It was in Hoboken, NJ which was hit quite hard by the storm. They appear to be NYC cabs in storage though some of the Hoboken and Jersey City companies also do use yellow cabs. Panthers seem like they could take some water up to the floor but nothing higher. Even if they are salvageable NYC requires cabs to be replaced at 3-4 year intervals. I don’t take cabs often but when I do they seem to be far less rancid then years ago.

  • avatar

    Here’s how you protect your car from flood damage:

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Had a company car totaled in a flood, took the check got a new one. A few months later got a call asking if the totaled car had been in a flood. Fraud had been committed and the title was clean, this was before Carfax. It didn’t help that the body shop where the car was sent kept saying “there’s nothing wrong with that car, the water didn’t get up to the vents”. Good luck to everyone with a flooded vehicle who has to fight their insurance company and idiots like that. PS: I hope “water to the center of the wheels” doesn’t apply to trucks and 4WDs.

  • avatar

    Steven Lang: Do you foresee a surge in used car prices, because of the demand for replacement cars?

  • avatar

    Houston gets plenty of rain and thus floods. For those not accustomed to flood cars, here are a few quickies to look for. Under the seats, press up on the cushion. If you feel water; car was flooded. Check for missing padding under the carpeting. Look for rust in trunk or engine compartment. Look for water lines. Check all electronics, if a lot of stuff is not working, good bet it was flooded. Check glove box, if there is nothing in it, no paperwork, no manuals, etc. might be a flood car. At a road side, there was a guy selling a 911 for about 1/2 the price it should have been. Seat cushions were wet and missing padding under carpet. This 911 appeared after a flood that happened 3 days before.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    The old adage is still valid,
    If something is too good to be true, then it is not true.

    However, there is yet another adage:
    A sucker is born every minute.

  • avatar

    I recently replaced the door on a car that was dented in an accident. I purchased a replacement door at a junkyard that had already been removed from the donor car. The interior panel of the door had already been removed. When I disassembled the door, it was clear the door had been sitting in a puddle (or the car), given the angled line of mud inside the door. I transferred all the parts from my door to the new door shell after thoroughly cleaning it out. I did subaequently test all the electrical components inside the door and they worked fine…but for how long?

    Keep an eye out for water damaged salvage parts too.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    After Tropical storm Allison in 2001 , here in Houston the market for new and used vehicles was affected for months . It was difficult to buy any used vehicle for a while and prices went up substantially .At the time my sister and B-I-Ls’ house had waist deep water . He actually thought his 5 year old Jaguar which had flooded halfway up the windshield could be salvaged , but the insurance totalled it . My sister ‘s Chevy floated down the street . After shopping for a used car for a good while they finally bought a very used Crown Vic .A lot of people went to Dallas or San Antonio to buy cars , so their markets were distorted also . IIRC fraud wasn’t quite the problem it had been in earlier , pre- CARFAX flooding events . More recently , 4 years ago here we had Hurricane Ike , but it was more high winds (over 100 mph at my house ) than flooding , at least here in Houston . But I wish people living in Sandy affected areas good luck .After Ike , my power was out for nearly a month , traffic was snarled for at least that long , and availability of fuel was a major problem for weeks . The stock market crash occurring at the same time kept it totally out of the national news media ,as well as out of dumbass W’s mindset even though he used to live here and FEMA and other government response was tepid at best .

    • 0 avatar

      I think Sandy will show that there is no miracle solution to disasters like Ike, Katrina and the others. The MSM has sneered at Romney’s position that returning the nuts and bolts of relief to state and local government makes sense. Local knowledge is important and there is no benefit in running things based on a god’s eye view from DC when the viewers aren’t gods, but rather men with feet of clay. And to assist in the effort, who would be better at logistics than Walmart? Not government, except possibly the military.

      • 0 avatar

        You’re making the assumption that the Feds take over and dictate all emergency relief and recovery efforts with no input from local authorities. That isn’t the case. FEMA works in conjunction with state and local authorities and helps provide and coordinate resources where and when local authorities may not have them.

      • 0 avatar


        I hear you, but it appears that FEMA is unable to deliver the goods people expect. Part of that is unreasonable expectations but another part of it is that FEMA doesn’t seem to be agile and flexible in their response.
        One thing I know for sure – being head of FEMA will be a thankless task no matter how well they perform. Between states’ inability to plan and to allocate resources and people’s inability to be their own first responders for a few days, FEMA is also a convenient scapegoat for others failings. But I still don’t think FEMA does logistics well and it may be institutional.
        An example of what may need to be done in NYC is a seawall – Galveston got one a century ago. Providence RI got a hurricane barrier after the 1938 storm and Carol at mid-century. I remember seeing the high water marker at 12 feet above street level for the ’38 storm. It was federally funded, but it took 46 years for a significant test from Sandy. It wasn’t wasted money. For NYC, I read the cost might be $6 billion…

      • 0 avatar

        Why would you want so much redunduncy of having 50 state agencies responding to emergencies? When a huge emergency comes, the state responders would be rusty from not having enough experience, and many of them would be victims themselves. It’s hard to be a first responder when your own family is homeless and running from the storm.

      • 0 avatar

        In addition to the responses above, how often does a governor turn down help from FEMA? Even the “small government” ones don’t because all politicians lie about wanting small government — almost all want to make bigger the parts that they like and make smaller the parts the other guy likes.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      @icemilkcoffee, 50 different state disaster relief agencies, 50 state level fiefdoms and 50 state patronage job kingdoms.

      • 0 avatar

        You already have 50 state fiefdoms. You need leaders who will hold their feet to the fire so that they are effective fiefdoms. That only happens if the voters want it to happen, otherwise, as Mencken would say, you’ll get what you deserve, good and hard. The one big centralized fiefdom doesn’t sound like an improvement, either. They seem pretty rusty too. The first responders for at least a few days can always be found in the mirror. Its imprudent to think that any government can respond broadly in less time than that. People who have thought that have been disappointed time and again.

  • avatar

    Wonder if they would write off an Amphicar ? I remember a flood here a few years ago and people were dropping off their water damaged items including a canoe

  • avatar

    I wouldn’t mind purchasing a flood-damaged pre 1975 American classic vehicle, since Id just tear it apart and replace everything anyway.

  • avatar

    Here’s how to avoid a Sandy flood damaged vehicle. You don’t have to check for actual flood damage. Just don’t purchase any car having multiple dings on every door and panel, heavily tinted windows, and after-market wheels. In other words, avoid cars with the traditional markers of the NYC metro area.

    Of course, here is Upstate we don’t have to look for visible markers of down state car, we can smell them from far away.

  • avatar

    Take off the panels in the trunk-look under the spare. A little non-tool disassembly will reveal grit in places it should not be. A local Caddy dealer once tried to sell me a SRX “but it can’t be leased”. They claimed it was a model year too old, but the wet trunk and grit under the mats told another story (they’d scam me but not GMAC). Same at a local VW dealer…oddly cheap A6 Wagon in the showroom. Cleanup was almost 100%, but for the grit in the cigarette lighter…not ash, brown grit. A few trunk panels popped off to the horror of the salesman showed that the river grit had not been cleaned out of the parts of the car you can’t see.

    Having said that, and being in the local area, I would never buy a used car that saw NYC use. I’d buy a used car from upstate, or PA, but never NYC use. The roads and conditions are just too brutal.

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