How to spot and avoid flood damaged vehicles

The purpose of this post is to help you protect yourself against and avoid flood damaged vehicles, as an influx are expected to surface in Canada following Hurricane Sandy.


Hurricane Sandy submerged a great number of vehicles. And Hurricanes Katrina and Rita water damaged more than half a million vehicles. Perhaps you’re asking yourself “so what? Why is buying a flood damaged car bad?” Well, in Canada flood damaged cars are viewed to be so problematic that they are to be titled “non-repairable” and never used on public roads again, regardless of their apparent condition or any repairs that have been performed. Basically, they’re only good for scrap or parts after being flood damaged as they cannot be legally registered for use on public roads ever again… So is it then a safe assumption that consumers are protected, given that flood damaged cars are titled as non-repairable? Unfortunately not. There are ways that unscrupulous individuals and dealers can dodge or “clean” / “title wash” a non-repairable title in order to make the car appear road-worthy so that they can sell it for more than it’s worth as scrap or parts. And part of the process of evading or cleaning the non-repairable title often involves vehicles crossing state boundaries and ending up in Canada. So Canadian consumers need to be aware of the “flood” of flood damaged cars heading north of the border (sorry, couldn’t resist!) to avoid becoming a victim with a worthless vehicle.

So what should you do to protect yourself from unknowingly purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle?

First and foremost, if you’re purchasing a vehicle imported from the US it’s important to buy from a registered dealership as you are likely protected from flood damaged cars. In Ontario, dealerships operating legally that are registered with OMVIC are required to disclose any flood damage. And if you buy a car that turns out to have flood damage that wasn’t disclosed, then the dealership will be on the hook as it’s their responsibility to identify the damage regardless of whether or not they were aware of it. If you’re buying from a private seller, however, and end up with a flood damaged car, then you’re SOL. So ensure you’re protected and buy from a registered dealer.

Here are some tips to help you identify flood damaged cars

(because the vehicle history reports don’t always contain flood damage info – like when an insurance claim isn’t made against the flooded vehicle):

  • Follow your nose! Use a “sniff” test to smell for mould or mildew odours inside the cabin. Or perhaps there’s an overwhelming smell of cleaning product or air fresheners that have perhaps been used to cover-up tell-tale smells. Run the fan, AC and heat to help check for smells.
  • Test all electrical systems. Flood damaged vehicles typically suffer electrical problems when water has gotten into the electronics. So check the lights, wipers, turn signals, cigarette lighter, radio, A/C and heater.
  • Ask! Ask the seller if the car has been damaged (flood or otherwise) or has anything other than a “clean” title. It’s not so much the answer that you seek, but the delivery of the answer. If your gut is telling you something is fishy, it’s often wise to trust it and walk away.
  • Get it inspected by a mechanic you know and trust. Any half-decent mechanic should be able to spot a flood damaged vehicle. If the seller won’t let you get the car in question independently inspected, then that might be a warning sign something is not right.
  • Check for rust and water lines where they wouldn’t normally occur. Check the trunk, glove box, centre console, seat brackets, floor mats, under the floor mats, engine compartment and door jambs. Are there dirt, rust or water marks in suspicious places?
  • Are the floor mats discoloured, mismatching or oddly shaped? Or suspiciously clean? This can indicate that water made it into the cabin.
  • Is there any moisture in the headlamp or tail light enclosures? How about the instrument panel? Do they appear foggy? It can be very difficult to get water out of these areas.

Hopefully these tips on how to spot water damage will help you avoid buying a flood damaged vehicle. Be diligent and trust your instinct. If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is. Don’t try to convince yourself that it’s just a really, really good deal!

As always, I’m here to assist in any way possible when it comes time to purchase or sell a car,


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