According to a research conducted in 2014 by Carfax, 800,000 cars had encounters with floods and maybe part of an emerging fraud called title washing.

Title washing encompasses wrecked vehicles, cars with odometer issues and most importantly, vehicles that were submerged in flood waters. It involves “professional con men illegally alter(ing) vehicle documents to get title brands such as ‘salvage’ or ‘flood’ removed from a car’s title.”

With six to 11 storms predicted for 2015, you should be able to spot the tell-tale signs that a car was involved in a flood. Spotting this can prevent you from buying a mangled piece of death trap. Here is how to avoid purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle.

damage in car cause by flood

What dangers does a flooded car pose?

A flood-damaged vehicle is defined as a vehicle (that) has been completely or partially submerged in water to the extent that its body, engine, transmission or other mechanical component parts have been damaged.”  This is according to The National Insurance Crime Bureau based in Illinois.

Most modern automobiles rely on electrical components to control a variety of safety measures. If one of these safety measures fail, then this can pose a life-threatening risk to you.

These components include and not limited to; anti-lock brakes, turning signs, transmission and even steering for some vehicles. All of which can malfunction on a busy highway that can result in a catastrophic traffic accident.

8 Smart Ways To Detect Flood Damage On A Potential Car Purchase

1. Check for the Flood or Salvage titles

This should be the easiest check.

Request from the dealer to see the vehicle’s flood or salvage titles. They have to show you all documents related to the vehicle.

Flood title implies you can drive away with the car and consult a mechanic later.

Salvage title implies the car is not fit to return to the roads and is only worthy of being bought as spare parts only. A car that was flooded above the dashboard level is assigned salvage title as most likely the electronic components are damaged.

The below shows a picture of a sample Salvage Title Certificate from the state of New Jersey. All other states certificates will contain similar information.

title with title washing flood designation

If both titles are unavailable, request the car history report. Check point 8 below.

2. Check for obvious signs of damage

The car dealer may have tried to rehabilitate the car already, but they may have left small clues behind.

  • Look for dried mud and visible water lines in the trunk and rear compartment. The mud and water lines are easier to spot on hard to clean places, such as gaps between panels and the inside of tail lights.
  • Rust builds up as a result of corrosion. So check for the presence of rust in the following areas:
    • Engine compartment
    • Under the hood
    • On the heads of screws under the dashboard

engine with flood damage

  • Screwed up wires and distinguished water lines on the dashboard.
  • To find out how deep the car may have been flooded, check the interior of the vehicle for a water line running all around.
  • New interior components such as carpets and seats could also mean replacement after the car was soaked in a flood.

3. Check with a reputable car insurance company

An insurance company will know the areas where flooding occurred. The flood and salvage titles are determined and assigned to cars by auto insurance companies after careful and skillful assessments. Take advantage of the databases these companies host on different cars and identify good from raw deals.

4. Check and smell interior components

Put your smell senses to work.

  • Carpeting that gives off a musty or dump smell has to be questioned.
  • Unusual coloration (sea mineral deposits) on carpets.
  • Run the air conditioner and determine if the smell is nasty or foul. As it is likely to pass air in from hard to clean place that are growing bacteria.
  • According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, some sellers use strong perfumes to try and cover up the smell of mold.

5. Take matters in your own hands

  • Test for any signs of malfunctioning lights. To tell if a light is misbehaving from a normal fault or was damaged from flood impact, check to see the lights aren’t flickering haphazardly.
  • Check if the paper filter has any indicators of water seeping in, there will be water stains on it.
  • If it’s a modern vehicle, then operate the on-board computers to see if they offer a fluid or a fluid free experience. If those do not work anymore, seek to find out why.

6. Perform an oil check

  • Clean, uncontaminated oil should be dark in color and not too sticky. In contrast, water clogged oil is stickier and appears rather pale. Check to see the color and texture of the oil. But, the seller may have replaced the oil already.
  • Check the level of the oil – if it’s too high, then it may not all be oil in there.
  • To cut on cost, the seller could have refilled the tank with uncontaminated oil. So, again, check the color.

7. Have an expert tag along

Car sellers are good at disguising flood vehicles.

You need an expert with you to determine if the vehicle looks legitimate and the parts are adequate. Sometimes, a closer inspection is needed, so dissembling has to be done, you’ll want a professional to do that.

8. Order for a car-specific report

You can order a low-cost report from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, operated by the Department of Justice. This can cost about $7 or less.

The report contains the status of vehicles that came from junkyards, salvage yards, insurance carriers, auto recyclers, and most state motor vehicle departments.

This may be enough to determine if you want to move forward. For more information on a car, you can check vehicle history reports at MotoSnoop. The prices vary, but single reports can cost about $30.

According to Fraud Guides, if you are suspicious that a car dealer may be committing fraud by intentionally selling flooded vehicles or a salvaged vehicle, as a good-condition used car, contact your auto insurance company, local law enforcement agency or the National Insurance Crime Bureau at (800) TEL-NICB (835-6422).

Buying a vehicle is a big investment. A little vigilance now can save you from a big headache down the road.