Buyers beware: Flood-damaged cars popping up in used car dealerships weeks after record rainfall

Buyers beware: Flood-damaged cars popping up in used car dealerships weeks after record rainfall
Witney Way at the Beltline

It’s been three weeks since hundreds of cars were left abandoned along the Beltline and Madison-area roads due to unprecedented amounts of rainfall, but car owners and car buyers are only now starting to see the effects.

Those flood-damaged cars are popping up at used car dealerships around town. Some run just fine; others, may run now, but not for long.

Once floodwater rises above a car’s door openings, extensive damage can happen. Even if cars have been cleaned and are able to be driven, that doesn’t mean they’re safe and will last.

Floodwater is a corrosive and abrasive mix of water and dirt that can work its way into every seam and crevice of your car.

AAA says the electrical systems in modern cars are particularly prone to floodwater damage. Door locks, window regulators, power seat motors, and heating and air conditioning systems are examples of car parts that may work adequately immediately following a flood, only to fail later because of dirty water contamination.

“There are long-lasting effects of water damage on cars that might not be apparent right away,” said Nick Jarmusz, AAA director of public affairs. “Corrosion to the electrical system may allow the car to be driven right now with no noticeable problems but could cause long-term problems for the car down the road.”

Such cars should have a “salvage” title, but some sellers don’t follow those guidelines. In many cases, insurance companies total flood-damaged cars and sell them at auction.

Instead of being disassembled for parts by salvage companies, some of those vehicles are bought by people who restore them to operating condition and resell them to unsuspecting customers.

Buyers should also know that flood-damaged cars can be shipped anywhere for resale and continue to appear in the marketplace for many months following major floods.

“The bigger challenge is for vehicles that never did get inspected or didn’t get salvaged and did experience some damage,” said Jarmusz. “Things like corrosion to the electrical system or some water or some mold in the vehicle doesn’t impact the performance of the vehicle. Maybe it was checked out by a mechanic, but it was never reported to the insurance company or flagged by the dealer.”

AAA says there are four common indicators of flood damage:

1. The car has a damp, musty smell.

2. Carpet and upholstery has been recently cleaned and replaced.

3. There’s dirt and dried mud under the dash, in the engine compartment, and/or inside the trunk.

4. There is rust or corrosion on the body of the car and inside electrical connectors.

Besides mechanical and electrical problems, mold can cause other problems, too. “There are sanitary concerns in terms of mold or other germs and pathogens that have been in the water that can seep into the carpet,” said Jarmusz. “Unless you’ve done a very thorough job cleaning and replacing the carpeting in the vehicle, it can still linger and cause illnesses down the road.”

“It’s important as car buyers in really the next couple of years that are buying used vehicles from the Madison-area, to check out and make sure there aren’t any damages that aren’t ever reported.”

AAA recommends bringing your car to a mechanic to have them check out the electrical systems and look for corrosion.

AAA also recommends prospective buyers purchase a vehicle history report like the ones available from CarFax. While reports like those can’t catch everything, they usually show when a car has been issued a salvage title, which is a giveaway it’s had a major problem in its past.