Thousands of hurricane cars expected to flood used car market

DENVER-- AAA has a warning for future car buyers:  Beware of flooded cars from hurricane zones.

According to AAA, up to one million vehicles were submerged, soiled and spoiled by Hurricane Harvey.  That's twice the number of vehicles destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy combined.

The figure doesn't even include vehicles from Hurricane Irma in Florida.  When hurricanes trigger major flooding, thousands of vehicles get classified as 'totaled' by insurance companies.  Then salvage lots buy them, try to restore them and sell them on the used-car market.

"We've seen it after every major hurricane: Colorado's used market gets flooded with flood-damaged vehicles," said AAA Colorado spokesman Skyler McKinley. "Buyers with an untrained eye could get a great deal on a flood-damaged car that seems to run great, only to pay a steep price for the damage a few miles down the road."

Signs of water damage may include:

  • Waterline under the hood, undercarriage, and bumpers
  • Mud and debris inside the cabin and trunk
  • Signs of rust inside the vehicle
  • Fogging inside the headlights and taillights
  • The scent of disinfectants or cleansing agents used to cloak musty smells, mold, or mildew
  • Carpet or floor mats with traces of wetness
  • Signs that the carpets, seats, and interiors were recently shampooed

According to the Federal Trade Commission, car buyers need to know the difference between a 'salvage title' and a 'flood title.'

A 'salvage title' means the car was declared a total loss by an insurance company because of a serious accident or some other problems. A 'flood title' means the car has damage from sitting in water deep enough to fill the engine compartment. The title status is part of a vehicle history report.

AAA Colorado offers these tips for used car buyers:

  • Obtain a CARFAX Vehicle History Report, which can reveal if the vehicle has been involved in a flood, major crash, fire, or uncover odometer fraud.
  • Conduct a title search of the vehicle. Check the VIN number at VINCheck.
  • Be careful about purchasing a used vehicle from an individual running a newspaper ad and using a cell phone number.
  • Look for information from a vehicle's current title, including the vehicle's brand history. "Brands" are descriptive labels regarding the status of a motor vehicle, such as "junk," "salvage," and "flood" vehicles.
  • Look for any reports of the vehicle being transferred or sold to an auto recycler, junk yard, or salvage yard. Select a reputable car dealer when buying a used vehicle in the aftermath of disasters.
  • If possible, have your insurer check to determine if the vehicle was previously insured in a flooded area.
  • Trust your instincts. If you don't like the answers or the deal sounds too good to be true, walk away.