HOUSTON – There are some estimates that half a million vehicles were flooded when Harvey hit southeast Texas.
This means there are thousands of damaged vehicles being processed by adjusters and auction houses in Houston right now, and there are thousands of drivers looking for a new ride.
Here are some shopping tips from experts across the country:
1 – You can’t always tell whether a car was flooded or not just by looking and smelling. Some auto dealers will go through great lengths to hide damage, including “washing” the title and moving the vehicle to another state not impacted by flooding. You can use services like Carfax to run the VIN number to see where a car was previously registered.
2 – BUT Carfax isn’t your only option for checking the VIN. “NICB's VINCheck is a free service provided to the public to assist in determining if a vehicle has been reported as stolen, but not recovered, or has been reported as a salvage vehicle by cooperating NICB member insurance companies.” Visit VINCheck here. And VehicleHistory.com can provide you with valuable vehicle records free of charge.
3 – Pricing should be a red flag. If the deal is too good to be true, if the price is really low, then something is likely wrong. Damaged cars can be (somewhat) repaired, of course, but the person selling the car should be upfront about what and how much damage occurred.
4 – Be extra cautious if you are buying an older vehicle from an unfamiliar used car lot or from someone who listed the vehicle online or in a classified ad. Older, high-mile vehicles often do not have comprehensive insurance coverage. If an uninsured car flooded, the previous owner may have dried it out and repaired it on their own. This means insurance companies and reputable car dealers may have never seen the damage, so the damage won't show up in a VIN check.
5 – Of course, one of the best things you can do is have a reputable mechanic look over the car you are interested in. A good inspection could run you anywhere from $50 to $200 (even more for high-end cars), but that is a lot cheaper than trying to repair hidden electrical issues later on.
6 – Use your nose. Like we said earlier, you can’t always tell if a car was flooded just by looking or smelling, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If the person selling the vehicle is using a lot of air scented products or keeps the windows down, he or she may be trying to hide that musty, mildew smell that is oh so hard to hide. Ask to get rid of any air scented products and roll up the windows. Let the car sit in the sun for a bit, open a door, quickly get inside, close the door and take a sniff. If the seller doesn’t want to let you do that, walk away.
7 – Touch the carpet, especially in hard to reach areas like corners, under seats, under the spare tire in the trunk, etc. These are areas where it is hard to get all the moisture out, and you just may feel something wet – even a long time after the car flooded. “Pull the seatbelts all the way out to see if there is discoloration from water stains farther down on the straps,” recommends HowStuffWorks.com. Check for discolorations in the carpet as well. And be weary of old cars with new carpet – it may have been replaced because of flooding.
Photos: Sept. 16 vehicle auction in Pasadena
8 – Check for rust. Inspect screws, brackets, etc. in areas that normally don’t come in contact with water. If you find the hinge for the glove box or arm rest has rust, for instance, that should be a red flag.
9 – Check for leaves, dirt and debris. You’d expect to find dirt in the engine bay, but if you’re able to pull up carpeting or floor mats (look in the trunk, too) you shouldn’t find an excessive amount of debris, sand or overall gunk left behind by toxic flood waters.
10 – Look at the headlights and taillights. If you see condensation inside the fixture, it may have been in a flood. This isn’t always a sure sign, however, as some non-flooded vehicles are just notorious for having this issue over time.
11 – Lastly, if you or someone you know is good with cars, this may also be a good time to get a deal on a damaged car. Some people will buy the flooded cars to part them out or they’ll try to repair them and export them to another country. Jalopnik reports once vehicles are officially written off by an insurance company, they will go to a yard managed by one of the two major salvage auctions, either Copart or Insurance Auto Auctions. Visit their websites to view current listings of flooded cars coming up for auction or sale. Just as a warning, however, most mechanics will warn you to avoid flooded cars like the plague. Over time even a "properly" repaired flooded car can continue to have rust and electrical problems, depending on how much water it took in.