Buyer Beware: Thousands of Flooded Cars Expected to Flood Used Car Market

AAA Urges Consumer Caution & Offers Tips


DENVER (September 21, 2017) – Up to one million vehicles were submerged, soiled and spoiled by Hurricane Harvey's catastrophic floodwaters. That's twice the number of vehicles destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined – not to mention vehicles flooded by Hurricane Irma in Florida.

Whenever a major hurricane triggers flooding, thousands of vehicles get 'totaled' by auto-insurers. They're then purchased at salvage lots by those who attempt to "restore" them, with varying expertise, and often end up on the used car market -- where buyers may be unaware that the vehicle has a "salvage title" or that the title has been "washed."

AAA is warning buyers to have any vehicle closely inspected by a AAA-approved or reputable auto mechanic and to closely inspect the vehicle's paper title before you buy.

"We've seen it after every major hurricane: Colorado's used market gets flooded with flood-damaged vehicles," said AAA Colorado spokesman Skyler McKinley. "Buyers with an untrained eye could get a great deal on a flood-damaged car that seems to run great, only to pay a steep price for the damage a few miles down the road."

Signs of water damage may include:

  • Waterline under the hood, undercarriage, and bumpers
  • Mud and debris inside the cabin and trunk
  • Signs of rust inside the vehicle
  • Fogging inside the headlights and taillights
  • The scent of disinfectants or cleansing agents used to cloak musty smells, mold, or mildew
  • Carpet or floor mats with traces of wetness
  • Signs that the carpets, seats, and interiors were recently shampooed


Flooded cars aren't always totaled, and 50 percent are eventually resold. Buyers should always purchase a vehicle history report or obtain a free VIN report for any vehicle showing signs of flood damage.

To check to see if the vehicle flooded, consumers can use VINCheck at

Car buyers should take care to know the difference between a 'salvage title' and a 'flood title,' warns the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). A 'salvage title' means the car was declared a total loss by an insurance company because of a serious accident or some other problems. A 'flood title' means the car has damage from sitting in water deep enough to fill the engine compartment. The title status is part of a vehicle history report.

Bottom line? When buying a used car, remember the old adage: "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

AAA Colorado offers these tips for used car buyers:

  • Obtain a CARFAX Vehicle History Report, which can reveal if the vehicle has been involved in a flood, major crash, fire, or uncover odometer fraud.
  • Conduct a title search of the vehicle. Check the VIN number at VINCheck.
  • Be careful about purchasing a used vehicle from an individual running a newspaper ad and using a cell phone number.
  • Look for information from a vehicle's current title, including the vehicle's brand history. "Brands" are descriptive labels regarding the status of a motor vehicle, such as "junk," "salvage," and "flood" vehicles.
  • Look for any reports of the vehicle being transferred or sold to an auto recycler, junk yard, or salvage yard. Select a reputable car dealer when buying a used vehicle in the aftermath of disasters.
  • If possible, have your insurer check to determine if the vehicle was previously insured in a flooded area.
  • Trust your instincts. If you don't like the answers or the deal sounds too good to be true, walk away.


About AAA Colorado
More than 650,000 members strong, AAA Colorado is the state's greatest advocate for the safety and security of all travelers. As North America's largest motoring and leisure travel organization, AAA provides more than 53 million members with travel, insurance, financial, and automotive-related services - as well as member-exclusive savings. For more information, visit