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Beware of Buying a Flood-Damaged Vehicle

When flooding hits, hundreds of vehicles are damaged. Many will end up on the used car market. Vehicles with flood damage can be shipped across the country in a matter of days and appear for sale on the Internet or at car lots far away from the storm area, without any mention or obvious signs of the damage.

The National Salvage Vehicle Reporting Program, an independent third party standards body for the federal government's comprehensive database on vehicle damage history, reports that thousands of water/flood damaged vehicles have been sold at auction, including some then resold without disclosure that they were flood-damaged.

Floods can damage vital parts of a car including airbag sensors, brakes, and electrical system-and the damage may not show up right away. Don't put your hard-earned money into a flood-damaged lemon.

Protect Yourself Before Purchasing

  • Have the vehicle inspected by an independent, competent automotive technician who has no relation to the seller.  Since flood damage can be hard to spot, paying an expert mechanic for an inspection is a good idea.
  • Check the vehicle history. Get the VIN (vehicle identification number) and trace its history through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System database for a small fee. The National Motor Vehicle Information System is administered by the U.S. Department of Justice. Some consumers also choose to trace vehicle history using commercially available reports such as Experian's Auto Check or CarFax. A vehicle history should tell you if the car's been in a flood region or issued a flood or salvage title. Remember though, these databases do not always have up-to-date or complete information about a vehicle (which is why the independent inspection is critical).
  • Be on the lookout for vehicles with tell-tale signs of being submerged in water. For example:
  • Musty or "over-perfumed" smell or signs of mold or mildew;
  • Water stains, mud or residue in the trunk, under the carpet, floor mats, gas and brake pedals, and in hard-to-reach places difficult to clean;
  • Title or registration histories indicating the car was in a flood area;
  • Car hesitates, runs rough, or shows signs of premature rust or corrosion in places where you wouldn't expect to see rust, such as the upper door hinges, trunk latches, and screws on 
    the console.
  • Always physically inspect the vehicle's paper title before you buy. Check to see if it has been branded as "flood," "junk," "salvage," "rebuilt" or another brand indicating the vehicle was severely damaged.  But beware; a clean title does not prove the car is undamaged. The title may have been 'laundered' across state lines or altered to conceal the brand.

File a Complaint

Consumers should file complaints against a used motor vehicle dealer with the Secretary of State, Bureau of Information Security, Regulatory Monitoring Division online or by contacting the Bureau of Information Security, Regulatory Monitoring Division at 888-SOS-MICH (888-767-6424).

Consumers may contact the Michigan Department of Attorney General's Consumer Protection Team at:

Consumer Protection Team
P.O. Box 30213
Lansing, MI 48909
Fax: 517-241-3771
Toll free: 877-765-8388
Online complaint form