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Hurricane- and Flood-Damaged Vehicles

What You Need to Know

Flood-Damaged Vehicles

When hurricanes hit, vehicles are often flooded. The obvious questions that come up after a flood are whether the vehicle is safe to drive or what to do if a vehicle is destroyed. A not-so-obvious question for a flood victim or any used-car buyer: How do I make sure a vehicle I'm buying wasn't previously damaged in a flood? Below are frequently asked questions and answers.

Info for Flood Victims

Once flood waters recede, you'll likely be assessing whether your vehicle is able to be used again or if it's been damaged beyond repair. It's important to do a thorough assessment of the vehicle before you start it up, because there could be damage that isn't visible.

The batteries in hybrid and electric vehicles are highly corrosive and should not be exposed to standing water. Flooded vehicles may have high voltage and short circuits that can shock and cause fires. Do not park a damaged vehicle with a lithium-ion battery in a garage or within 50 feet of your house or other structure, another vehicle, or combustibles. If you suspect your battery has been damaged, contact your dealer. 

Car Seat: If your car seat or booster seat was destroyed, review NHTSA’s guide for purchasing the right car seat for your child’s age and size. We know car seats can be expensive, so if you’re thinking of purchasing a used car seat, use NHTSA’s used car seat safety checklist. When it comes time to installing a seat, you can take it to a local inspection station.

Equipment for Drivers with Disabilities: For drivers with disabilities, finding the right vehicle to meet your needs can take time. If the equipment in your vehicle was damaged by flooding, you may be faced with this process all over again. Review NHTSA’s recommendations for finding a qualified mobility dealer to help make safe, legal modifications to your new vehicle.

Tires: Rubber tires should hold up well in water, so the main culprit here may be road debris. Flood waters often drudge up bits of material that can be harmful to your tires. If you are driving around flood-affected areas, frequently inspect your tires for air leaks. When buying new tires, review NHTSA’s tire-buying guide for information on treadwear, traction, temperature, and more.

Be sure to mention any of these damaged vehicle components to your insurance company.

We recommend that you first contact your insurance company. Once you file a claim, they will be able to help guide you through the process of purchasing a replacement vehicle. If you are looking to purchase a new vehicle, search NHTSA’s 5-Star Safety Ratings, which measure the crashworthiness and rollover safety of vehicles. Five stars is the highest rating, and one star is the lowest.

If the insurance company pays your claim as a total loss, help protect future buyers by making sure that the damaged vehicle’s title is transferred to the insurance company and includes the information required by the federal odometer disclosure law.

If you have a policy with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP Direct), call 800-638-6620.

Please contact your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to determine whether you can obtain a copy of your title in person at a regional office, or by applying for a certified copy online or through the mail. State DMV offices may vary in requirements for obtaining vehicle paperwork.

Buyers Beware

After a vehicle is damaged by flood waters, the vehicle owner may get rid of the vehicle and that flooded vehicle and its parts might start appearing on the market for sale — even hundreds of miles away. Unsuspecting buyers should be aware of flood-damaged vehicles. 

If a vehicle is declared “totaled,” it will receive a new title, called a “salvage” or “flood” title. The vehicle will typically then be sold at a salvage auction to junkyards or vehicle rebuilders. It is legal to resell to consumers if the defect is noted on the title, the vehicle has been rebuilt, and the vehicle has received a “rebuilt” title. Beware of flood-damaged vehicles with clean or “lost” titles. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) can help you trace a vehicle’s title history.

Scammers looking to make a buck know how to clean up a damaged vehicle. On first appearance, the vehicle may look fine. If the seller is using a fraudulent title, it may be even more difficult to determine whether the vehicle is flood-damaged. However, flood damage can affect a vehicle’s mechanisms for years to come and may not always manifest as a problem right away. Remember these tips for spotting flood-damaged vehicles when shopping around:

  • Sniff Test: If the car smells musty, there is a high likelihood it has been exposed to water. If it has a strong smell of deodorizer or air freshener, it is possible the seller is trying to mask the smell of mildew.
  • Dirt and Grime: Mud, dirt, or waterlines inside the vehicle are possible signs of flood damage. Don’t forget to check hidden spots for dirt and watermarks, like the trunk, glove box, and under the dashboard.
  • Rust and Corrosion: Check under the vehicle to see if there is an unusual amount of rust or corrosion for the vehicle’s age and location.

Additional Resources

Federal Emergency Management Agency

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

National Hurricane Center