In the destructive aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, hundreds of thousands of new and used cars were left flooded.
While many end up being sent to the scrapyard, oftentimes flood-damaged cars can be sold again to unsuspecting consumers, leaving them with a faulty car and a significant loss of money.
According to a recent report from Carfax, about 325,000 flooded vehicles were already in use across the country, a 20 percent increase from 2016. Now, hundreds of thousands more could join them. Some reports indicated that 500,000 to 1 million vehicles may have been flooded during Harvey alone.
Historically, about half of the cars involved in a flood can return to the market, Carfax states.
Ron Montoya, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds, said these damaged vehicles are often sold at independent used car dealerships or from a private seller through a classified listing.
These cars aren’t just limited to the storm-affected areas across the Southeast; buyers throughout the country could be at risk, Montoya told AccuWeather.
"Oftentimes these vehicles are taken to a place where the flood did not occur, that way you’re less likely to suspect it [and] you’re not as on guard for this sort of damage,” Montoya said.
In some cases, cars that sustained flood damage can be salvaged and resold legally.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), the bureau works with member companies, law enforcement and auto auction companies to identify vehicles that have had an insurance claim filed then processes them for sale.
Cars determined to be a total loss are retitled with the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the new title will reflect that the car has suffered flood damage. Most vehicles are then sold to parts companies where they are dismantled to sell reusable parts that weren’t damaged.
The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is then entered into the NICB's VINCheck database which allows buyers to see if a car has ever be identified as "salvage" or a total loss. Customers can also utilize the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System's database.
The problem occurs when unethical dealers buy the cars for cheap at an auction, clean them up, switch the VIN number and retitle them in a different state without disclosing the flooding. This process is known as “title washing.”
In the days after Harvey, the NICB warned consumers that vehicles damaged by floodwaters may soon be appearing for sale around the country.
“Vehicles that were not insured may be cleaned up and put up for sale by the owner or an unscrupulous dealer with no disclosure of the flood damage,” the NICB stated.
The Insurance Council of Texas estimated insured losses at $19 billion from Harvey, with nearly $5 billion of that coming from flooded passenger and commercial vehicles.
Flood damage in cars can short the electrical system, cause corroded mechanical parts and diminish safety features, like airbags and anti-lock brakes, according to Carfax. There are also health risks such as mold and bacteria that can linger.
Montoya recommends that people take a mechanic with them to fully inspect the car before exchanging payment. If dealing with a private seller, he also suggested interviewing them and asking many detailed questions about the vehicle’s history.
The best place to start when looking to discern whether a car has been damaged is to run a vehicle history report.
“That’ll let you know if [the car] has moved across state lines, you can see if it's been in one of the states involved where the flood was,” Montoya said. “This will quickly help you identify cars that you don’t even want to pursue if you see any suspicious records in the history of it.”