Imposters on Wheels: Beware of Flood-Damaged Vehicles

Recent hurricanes caused flood damage to a large number of automobiles that will be repaired and sold to unsuspecting consumers. What can members do to protect themselves?


The receding floodwaters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita unveiled an incredible number of flood-damaged automobiles – upwards of 500,000, experts estimate – that will be repaired and sold to unsuspecting consumers.

Selling an automobile that has been damaged by a flood is not illegal – on average, about 1 million flood-damaged vehicles are sold each year, often for parts – as long as the facts are disclosed to the buyer. And therein lies the problem. Both unsuspecting dealers and consumers can be duped into buying flood-damaged vehicles. For instance, after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, more than 30,000 flood-damaged vehicles were put back on the road.

The automotive industry is attempting to remedy the situation by drafting proposed federal legislation that would create an online database where consumers could find a vehicle’s title history. Titles provide background, including whether a vehicle has been wrecked or in a flood. However, this may or may not become law.

Meanwhile, what can members do to protect themselves? Most importantly, research the seller and the desired vehicle, and know what to look for regarding flood damage.

First, members should always make sure they are dealing with a reputable seller that appropriately inspects its used vehicles, provides a warranty, and will allow for a vehicle to be returned within a reasonable time after purchase. The Better Business Bureau is also a good resource for members to use in identifying reputable sellers. The BBB can check dealers’ records for any prior consumer complaints.

Like members’ credit reports, vehicles have history reports that can uncover hidden problems, including flood titles and whether a vehicle has been titled/registered in a flood area. Many dealers offer a free history report, or consumers can purchase one through organizations like or for about $20.

Remember, a history report that shows a vehicle was titled/registered in a flood area, such as New Orleans, should raise a flag, but that alone is not adequate evidence that a vehicle is flood damaged. (Some organizations that provide history reports are currently labeling all vehicles in flooded Gulf Coast communities as potentially flood damaged.) To best determine any flood damage, members should pursue a pre-purchase inspection and – as mentioned above – make sure they are buying from a reputable seller that certifies its used vehicles.

Most importantly, members should know how to spot the tell tale signs of water damage. When inspecting a used vehicle:

  • Check upholstery and carpeting closely. If it doesn’t match or fits loosely, it could be a sign it was recently replaced. Material that is faded, stained, or has water lines could indicate that water has been inside the vehicle.
  • Search for signs of sand and silt. Peel back the carpet on the floor looking for sand, mud and debris that indicate a vehicle was filled with water. Under the spare tire in the trunk and the glove compartment are also good locations to check for silt deposits, as they are often overlooked areas when a damaged car is refurbished.
  • Test the electrical system by turning the ignition key and making sure the accessory and warning lights and gauges come on and work properly. Try the windshield wipers, turn signals, cigarette lighter, radio, heater and air conditioner several times as well.
  • Flex wires under the hood and beneath the dashboard. Wires that have been wet may become brittle and crack after they dry. Checking wires and the electrical system is critical because salty floodwaters cause corrosion that eventually render wiring useless, which could lead to malfunctioning engine, brakes, air bags, etc.
  • Inspect the fluids of the vehicle. Check the engine crankcase oil using the oil dipstick. If the oil is cloudy or milky, it is a sign of water in the crankcase. Check the transmission fluid and rear axle or transaxle fluids. Look for signs of water contamination in these oils.
  • Smell the interior and trunk; notice any musty odors from mildew. Also look for any signs of mold and rust.
  • Review the overall vehicle. If there is something that has been replaced, like new seats or carpeting, while other areas that would have been a more logical investment have been overlooked, it could be a sign of a cover-up.

Members should also rely on professional help, taking their potential purchase to a third-party mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection. A professional mechanic will be able to get to areas and spot abnormalities that members might miss.

Enterprise puts all of its used vehicles through a 109-point inspection by an ASE certified technician, backs them with a 12 month, 12,000-mile limited warranty, and provides a seven-day repurchase agreement should the buyer change their mind. For more information visit




Nov. 7, 2005


  • good advice.