Beware of hurricane-affected cars flooding the used market

Dredged from flood waters, vehicles that should be sent to the scrap heap are often sold on to unsuspecting buyers

Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S., but they have the second highest car ownership numbers: 1.8 per household. They trail only Dallas. When Hurricane Harvey delivered its deadly blow recently, many of those cars – estimates go as high as a million – were destroyed along with tens of thousands of homes. It may be difficult to tally the ongoing human costs of such destruction, but every part of the recovery is dependent on replacing many of those vehicles.

If you see pictures during the storm, it’s stunning: cars submerged, cars floating, cars stranded on highways now turned into thundering rivers. And yet just a few days later, with the flood waters subsided, it’s hard to believe the water was once up to the eaves of suburban homes. Like many of those homes, those cars may look okay from the outside, but they are write-offs. And just like after Hurricane Katrina and Sandy and others in years past, those flood cars will show up by the tens of thousands across the U.S. and even in Canada, sold to unwitting buyers.

Buyers who should know better. Those flooded cars will have electrical systems so compromised they will be dangerous, if they can even be rehabbed enough to start. That’s before you get to the corrosion that will be setting in and destroying the bodies and frames. Once you get them across state – and country – borders, title washing increases.

Insurers are handling claims hand over fist; Houston is not a city known for its transit and to live there is to drive there. Rental companies and car lots were both funneling tens of thousands of cars to the city, the demand through the roof after the disaster of the hurricane. For those with a cheque in hand, replacing their vehicle will be about the supply of new or nearly new vehicles. But for a significant number of those impacted by the storm, the situation is not so rosy. From Wired: “Roughly 15 per cent of Texas vehicle owners don’t have any kind of car insurance, despite laws saying they must, according to Hanna, at the Insurance Council of Texas. Of the remaining 85 per cent, just three-quarters have comprehensive insurance policies that are sure to cover flood damage.”

Those flooded vehicles are totalled, but unscrupulous salvagers will dry them out and sell them to those who have few options. They’ll also sell them to those who can’t pass up a deal too good to be true. As a buyer, how do you protect yourself?

The Automobile Protection Association (APA) rarely endorses buying a car from the U.S., unless it is a collector or rare find; at the very least, they recommend doing extensive homework on the purchase. When you can find the same make and model here in Canada, you will be buying it with the consumer protections of this country, and it will adhere to our standards.

Flooded cars will have telltale signs that even with a cursory view will tell a story. Jeremy Young, operations manager at Krown Rust Control, says that rust forms immediately. “Look at the bottom edges of body panels,” he says. “There are drain holes and the paint will become discoloured where rust is leaking out. If salt water is the culprit, even if it’s been sprayed off or vacuumed from carpeting, it will return fast. Salt forms a chemical bond.”

He acknowledges the number one place for damage is in the electrical system. “Disconnect the back of the headlight; right at the connection, there’s two wires and a clip. Undo that, and take a look. You’ll see corrosion.” Check for things other than water; flooding often brings soil and debris with the water, so look for odd things in weird places. Pull out the spare tire, where the depression it sits in often accumulates water and is frequently overlooked by those tarting up a car for quick sale. Headlights and even dashboards may be foggy or have condensation in them. Carpets are hard to dry out, and moisture can remain trapped for weeks beneath them. Feel them; smell for mold with the windows up. Check out every single electric system, something you should do with any used car, not just a suspect one.

The best advice about buying a used car is always the same: get an independent mechanic to get it up on a hoist. He or she will know why this hot car is such a great deal – and steer you away from it.

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One response to Beware of hurricane-affected cars flooding the used market

  1. Pat says:

    Good article. And, what about the bio hazards? E-coli, Norovirus, and a host of respiratory bugs could be living in the carpets, seats, fabric, etc.
    Gives the term “gray market” a whole new meaning, more like “brown market.”

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