Beware the ‘Hurricane Special’

Recently by Eric Peters: The Pushbutton Devil      

Over the next few months, there will be a large number of flood-damaged cars coming onto the used car market. They’ll be thoroughly cleaned up and rehabbed to look ok at first glance – but you’d better look a lot closer. You don’t want to inherit the keys to a four-wheeled Das Boot. Trust me.

Here are some red flags to watch for. If you see even one of them, hold onto your checkbook – and flee!

Condensation in the interior dome light or instrument cluster

Bad news if you spot this. Evidence of moisture in the car’s interior is a clear warning to drop that car from your list and move on. Also check head and tail-light housings, etc. Those parts are insulated from rain but will often show signs of having been submerged.

Noticeable “water line” on the inside door panels

If you see anything like that, the car is not something you want to even consider buying.It means the cabin was once a bathtub. Also check the engine compartment and look at the top of the engine, which should never get wet. Be very suspicious if the sound-deadening material that’s often attached to the underside of the hood has been removed; also look for warped cardboard interior trim panels, as in the glovebox area.

Moldy smell

A dead giveaway that the car “slept with the fishes.”

A flood-damaged car will typically be permeated by mold; the mold will work its way into nooks and crannies that are all-but-impossible to clean. Be very suspicious if the car has a bleach smell or has been spray-bombed with some sort of fragrance. The seller could be trying to hide the stink of 10,000 leagues under the sea.

Water stains in the trunk, especially the underside of the trunk lid

The factory seals on modern cars are usually impervious to rain and car washes, so if you see any indication that water got into the trunk, especially the underside of the trunk, the car was probably doing a pretty good imitation of a submarine at some point. Ditto the engine compartment. Walk away. Rapidly.

New carpets/upholstery in a late model vehicle

If the car you’re looking at is only four or five years old, but clearly has a brand-new carpet, that’s what’s known in law enforcement as a “clue.” Ditto the upholstery. Something’s fishy here – literally. Also check up under the dash for signs of water; if the car was flooded, you’ll probably see a light coating of rust as these parts were never intended to get wet and so were never rust-proofed.

Paperwork weirdness

Flood damaged vehicles are usually “totaled” by the insurance company – and supposed to be crushed or parted out. But unscrupulous players sometimes snatch them from the crusher, fiddle with the paperwork to hide the record of the car being totaled (this is called a “salvage title” in the business) clean them up – then unload them on unsuspecting buyers. Always run a Carfax ( which, while not foolproof, will help uncover a bait-and-switch title/evidence of fraud and other very bright red flags that could save you a lot of grief, such as multiple owners in a very short period of time.

Too good to be true deals

They almost always are. If you come across a used car that’s priced substantially less than its fair market value, and there’s no obvious, legitimate reason for this – such as much higher than usual mileage – assume the worst. Sellers are rarely stupid – but buyers are often gulled by their greed for a good deal. Don’t let dollar signs blind you – or you could end up buying a lot more than you bargained for.

Finally, consider having any prospective purchase examined by a third-party mechanic (not the dealer’s guy). Most honest dealers will not object to this as a condition of sale; if they do, consider it fair warning – and consider shopping someplace else. It shouldn’t cost you more than $100 or so to have a mechanic put the car up on a lift and give it a thorough once-over.

Spending $100 or so up front to avoid inheriting someone else’s water-logged ruin is money well-spent!