Watch out for flood damaged cars

Already this year several tropical storms and hurricanes have battered the southeastern United States, and there is still plenty of time left in hurricane season. But now a new warning is being issued not by the National Weather Service, but by AAA Carolinas. Watch out for flood damaged cars.

David E. Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas, warns that flood waters damaged cars throughout the southeast, and many of those cars could begin to pop-up for sale near you.

While flood-damaged vehicles can be restored, you still need to know if the vehicle has been damaged before buying a used car.

Flood-damaged cars and trucks can be shipped anywhere in the United States for resale, and could stay in the marketplace for many months.

To help you recognize flood damage, AAA Carolinas offers the following tell-tale signs:

  • Dried mud on engine parts or more dirt than usual around door hinges and wheel wells.
  • A damp or musty odor in the interior or trunk
  • New carpet and/or upholstery in a vehicle only five or six years old or younger.

Flood water is abrasive and forces its way into every seam and crevice on an automobile, said Jim Grey, president of AutoMark, AAA Carolinas automotive repair facilities. Major components vulnerable to flood damage are mechanical and electrical components.

Legally, flood-damaged vehicles, like vehicles that have been in traffic wrecks, can be sold. Here are some things to look for:

  • If a vehicle is considered a total loss by an insurance company and the vehicle owner is compensated, the North Carolina vehicle title is "branded" so a buyer will know the vehicle has been labeled a total loss.
  • A seller is obligated to tell a potential buyer when a vehicle has suffered flood damage and an insurance claim has been paid. To protect yourself, buyers should specifically ask in the next few months if the used vehicle for sale has been flood damaged and get the answer in writing.
  • Some companies offer vehicle histories for a fee. One that AAA Carolinas recommends is Carfax , which can determine through official records if the vehicle was ever wrecked, flooded or the subject of an insurance claim. It will check on odometer rollback, flood damage or whether the vehicle was salvaged. The number is 1-800-FIND-VIN.

For anyone whose vehicle has suffered potential flood damage, AAA recommends that before starting the vehicle a qualified automotive technician:

  • Remove all on-board computers and inspect for water damage;
  • Inspect all mechanical components, including the engine, transmission, axles and fuel system for water contamination;
  • Drain flood water from contaminated systems and flush
  • Drain and replace all contaminated fluids, like brake fluid, oil, etc.
  • Disassemble all mechanical parts for thorough cleaning and lubrication, if the vehicle was totally submerged.

Restoring a flood-damaged car can cost as much as restoring an antique car, but sometimes engine computers and other electronics can be salvaged. Experts warn though that some parts, such as door locks, window regulators and wiring harnesses could fail later as a result of the water damage.

It's buyer be aware, not necessarily buyer beware.