Consumers Should Be Wary Of Buying Flood-Damaged Vehicles

STATE – In the wake of devastating flooding in the Mid-Atlantic, AAA is warning consumers to do their homework and to check out any used car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) prior to purchase.

AAA Mid-Atlantic warns car buyers that flood-damaged vehicles can be shipped anywhere for resale, and they often continue to appear in the marketplace for up to a year after a major flood. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, vehicles that were flood-damaged in the hurricane affected areas were shipped throughout the United States for sale as both new and used cars. Unfortunately, consumers may not have known that the vehicles had been subjected to a flood that made the vehicles’ electrical systems more prone to failure, its metal parts to rust or fabric to mildew.

“Depending on the vehicle make, model and age, the cost of a thorough cleaning and drying may exceed the car’s value,” says Tracy E. Noble, Manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “In many cases, insurance companies ‘total’ flood-damaged vehicles that are then sold to salvage companies. Instead of being disassembled for parts, some of these vehicles end up being purchased by individuals who bring varying levels of expertise to the restoration process.”

If a car has been completely submerged, extensive disassembly may be needed for a thorough cleaning. Many parts of a car are difficult to clean and dry because they are hard to access. Door locks, window mechanisms, wiring harnesses, heating and air conditioning components and many other small devices are tucked away in hidden spaces. Initially, these items may operate properly following a flood only to fail at a later date due to contamination.

Electrical systems are particularly vulnerable to flood water damage. Engine computers, sensors and other electrical devices can sometimes be salvaged but unless they are thoroughly cleaned and dried, problems caused by corrosion may occur months after the flood.

In an effort to prevent flood-damaged vehicle histories from being “washed” when the vehicle travels from one state to another, the United States Department of Justice created the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) that links state motor vehicle departments together. NMVTIS, operated by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, is key weapon in protecting consumers from title fraud.

Nationally, 31 states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and the District of Columbia, both enter vehicle history data and also query the NMVTIS system before issuing new titles. Additionally, eight states including Maryland provide data into the system but do not make title inquiries before new titles are issued. When all 50 states are fully on board with NMVTIS, it will become extremely difficult to “wash” a vehicle title to remove a flood or salvage designation when a vehicle is registered and sold in another state.

The objective of NMVTIS is to prevent cloning a “clean” or legal VIN number from one state onto a stolen or salvaged vehicle of the same make and model in a different state. A VIN plate with the cloned new identification number is then placed on the vehicle and, when matched with false ownership documents, it can be registered and then sold to an unsuspecting buyer.

“Consumers should always have a used vehicle inspected by a quality repair facility prior to purchasing,” says Noble. “In the case of a cloned stolen vehicle, check to see if the dashboard VIN plate has been tampered with and have your trusted mechanic look at the hard to find VIN markings elsewhere on the vehicle to make sure they are the same as the plate on the dashboard.”

AAA offers the following tips for spotting a flood-damaged vehicle

  • Engage your sense of smell to detect any damp or musty odors inside the vehicle.
  • Has the carpet or upholstery been replaced or recently shampooed? Pull back the carpet at different areas and look for mud, dirt or signs of water stains.
  • Inspect the dashboard underside for signs of mud and dirt. This is a particularly hard area to clean.
  • Look under the vehicle for corrosion. It is uncommon to find corrosion in newer vehicles and those that are owned or sold in southern states.
  • Open all doors, hood, and trunk to inspect for corrosion, mud and dirt or discoloration on the door frames, hinges and under the weather stripping. Pay special attention to small spaces and crevices that are difficult to clean.
  • Check all warning lights, window motors, and all electrical components to ensure they are working properly. While a non-working part alone does not mean the vehicle was flooded, it combined with other difficulties is a cause for concern.
  • Obtain a CARFAX Vehicle History Report – This report can potentially reveal if the vehicle has been involved in a flood, major accident, fire, or uncover odometer fraud (but does not apply if the VIN has been cloned).
  • Always have the vehicle inspected by a quality repair facility prior to purchasing. AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities are located across the United States. Nearby locations can be found at

AAA encourages motorists to contact their auto insurance company before purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle. If the vehicle was purchased prior to the discovery that it was flood-damaged, owners should contact their insurance company for advice.

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