COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — From California to the Gulf Coast, heavy rains and strong hurricanes can do a lot of damage to homes, businesses, and personal property, like vehicles.
“You know, you get storms like Ian, which was a very high-water surge down in Florida, and these cars wind up all over the country,” said Patrick Olsen with CARFAX.
In the wake of Hurricane Ian in 2022, CARFAX estimates widespread flooding damaged as many as 358,000 vehicles, in addition to the 400,000 water-damaged cars already on the road before the storm even made landfall, and about 10,000 of them are estimated to be on roadways here in Ohio — the 11th most in the nation — a 26% increase from the year before.
“Particularly in Ohio, you may think, there’s not a hurricane within hundreds of miles of us,” said Olsen. “But what happens is, a lot of unscrupulous resellers will get a car from Houston or the gulf area or the east coast, and they will fix it up and take it to places like Ohio and try to put it off on buyers there.”
The car may look okay at first glance, but Olsen said there could be bigger problems with a previously flooded car. “It is literally rotting from the inside out. So, it can mess up your electrical system, it can mess up the engine,” Olsen said.
If you’re in the market for a used car, Olsen said there are telltale signs of water-damaged vehicles: First, take a deep breath. Do you notice a musty odor?
“You know, sometimes if you notice that the seller is using a lot of air fresheners all over the car, that can be a tell,” said Olsen. Look for damp or loose upholstery or carpets. “Sometimes it’s stained, or maybe it doesn’t quite match the rest of the carpeting in the car,” Olsen said.
Look for rust around the doors or inside the hood and trunk latches, check the glovebox for mud or silt, and take a closer look at the headlights. “Is there moisture or fog inside of those lights? That’s often a good sign as well.”
Finally, get a thorough inspection from an independent mechanic. “They can put it on a lift. They’ll get a view you’ll never get, right? And it’s just another way to backstop your purchase,” said Olsen.
If the car was insured when it was damaged and salvaged, the title should show that it is a previously flooded vehicle. If it was not insured, it can easily be cleaned up and resold without that disclosure. And unfortunately, Olsen said there isn’t a lot of recourse for you as the new owner.
You can file a complaint with the state Attorney General, but it’s difficult to determine if anything can be done. It’s much better to do your due diligence upfront.