Buying a used car? How to check for flood damage

Car buyers in the Pacific Northwest should be very cautious about vehicles with out-of-state titles right now, warns the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).

Hurricane Sandy took a heavy toll on cars and trucks throughout the Northeast. Now those damaged vehicles are entering used-car markets around the U.S.

Although flood-damaged vehicles are usually considered a total loss by insurance companies, they are frequently purchased at auction, cleaned up and resold to unsuspecting buyers far away. Insurance companies are required to report the VIN of any total loss vehicle, but it’s very possible that some of the estimated 230,000 damaged vehicles would be put on the market before the title is noted – or that the title or VIN has been altered.

Submersion in water does critical damage to the vehicle’s electronic system, but it can be difficult to detect if the car or truck is still working and has been thoroughly cleaned.

ODOT issued the following guidelines for car buyers:

  • Only shop for a used vehicle among licensed auto dealerships, which are very careful to avoid damaged cars.
  • Check the vehicle for signs of water or mineral deposits in the carpet and upholstery, and if possible, in the dashboard.
  • Ask the seller to see the title – and be ready to walk away from the deal if that is a problem.
  • Check vehicle history at
  • Carefully inspect the vehicle’s fluids. If the color or composition of the engine oil, transmission fluid, coolant and power steering fluid doesn’t look or smell right, it could be a sign of water damage.

ODOT notes that car buyers who find out later that the seller did not disclose flood damage information about the vehicle have a hard time getting their money refunded, and might need to hire a lawyer.