The hurricane season is finally over for 2011, suggesting that we no longer need to worry about one of the major problems caused by severe storms — flooded cars. Right? Wrong. Unscrupulous brokers have learned that it isn't smart to try to sell flood-damaged cars just down the road from a major flood. It isn't that hard to do a quick, cursory reconditioning of a damaged car in one place, then ship it — or a whole truckload of poorly reconditioned cars — to another city or state where consumers wouldn't suspect.
Be aware, too, that it doesn't require a major, news-making flood to cause damage. A neighborhood flash flood can send vehicles with serious water damage onto the market.
In Florida, there are two additional concerns: One is that the state is surrounded by salt and brackish water. When there's a flood, there's a good chance the water is salty, and saltwater does far more damage to cars, especially the electrical system, than freshwater.
The second: Boating is huge in Florida. You don't have to spend too much time around boat ramps before you see an inexperienced driver back his trailer into the water — and go just a little too far, dousing the rear of the car. Even brief exposure to water, especially saltwater, can cause havoc.
So what does water damage do?
First there's the obvious damage to upholstery and carpeting. "Floodwater is a corrosive and abrasive mixture of water and dirt that works its way into every seam and crevice of a vehicle," said John Nielsen, AAA national director of auto repair and consumer information.
"Most vulnerable are the engine, transmission and drivetrain, along with the fuel, brake and power steering systems," he said. Without a thorough cleaning, these parts can fail prematurely, Nielsen said. Also vulnerable, and possibly enough to total a car, is damage to the electrical system, which can be very expensive and difficult to repair.
A vehicle that has suffered water-related damage can be properly repaired. Collision and comprehensive insurance covers the cost, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
There are too many good used vehicles on the market to get suckered into buying one with flood damage. When in doubt, have your mechanic look it over before you sign on the dotted line.
Five ways to identify a flood-damaged car
Is there a moldy smell inside the car? Feel the carpet for dampness — bring a screwdriver and pull up a piece of the carpet if you suspect water damage. Look for dirt, sand and rust. Be wary if an older vehicle has brand-new carpet.
Check the electrical wiring for corrosion. Make sure everything that is electrically operated is functional.
Check inside the trunk, beneath the carpet and in the spare tire well. Look for rust, dirt and sand, and for oddly repainted or touched-up areas.
Look for a water mark — be prepared to pull a door panel and look inside if you are suspicious. Check for dirt, sand or rust at the bottom of the inside of the door frame.
Check the vehicle identification number through Carfax or AutoCheck. They won't catch everything, but you could see a salvage title or an insurance claim for flood damage.