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Latest Consumer Alert

July 3, 2018

Beware of flood-damaged vehicles

Flooding heightens safety and financial risks to vehicle owners, buyers


DES MOINES -- Recent flooding swamped cars in central Iowa, creating risks for consumers who plan to repair, sell or buy vehicles.

Iowans wishing to keep their flood-damaged vehicles should note that when they decide to sell or dispose of the vehicle they must disclose the fact that the vehicle incurred flood damage.  Drivers who elect to keep their flood-damaged vehicle should have it thoroughly inspected by a trained mechanic to identify all damage.

 Flooding can cause vital electrical, electronic/computer, brake, and airbag systems to fail. Flood water can also damage the engine, parts and lead. Flood waters can also leave behind pollution and mold in upholstery. Consumers should maintain copies of all repair invoices regarding repairs to flood-damaged vehicles. 

Iowans in the market for a vehicle should be cautious as flood-damaged vehicles may appear on used car lots, auction floors, and online ads in Iowa or nationwide, and it is likely that most will have serious mechanical and safety issues. It can be difficult to spot signs of flood damage if a seller has cleaned a vehicle that was submerged. An insurance company that declares a vehicle totaled is required to mark the title as “salvage” or in some states, “flood vehicle.” Insurance companies sell these vehicles at auctions, but dishonest dealers may buy them and fail to disclose the salvage title to consumers. Additionally, the owner of a flood-damaged vehicle who did not go through an insurance company may attempt to clean the vehicle and resell it without declaring the damage. There may also be attempts by dealers and individual sellers to remove the salvage or flood designation by retitling the car in different states.

Tips to Detect Flood Damage

  • Use your senses to detect flood damage. Look for water stains, signs of silt or sand residue under the carpet or in low spots such as the trunk or storage well, or signs of fogging in headlights, taillights, or behind clear plastic lighting/instrument covers. Use your sense of smell to detect mold or mildew, or unusually strong cleaners to mask those odors. And listen to detect an engine that runs rough or hesitates.
  • Hire an independent, trusted mechanic to inspect the vehicle. Reputable sellers should be willing to work with you to have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic of your choosing. If a seller is unwilling to have the vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic, it is best to walk away and find a different vehicle.
  • Get a vehicle history report. provides low-cost vehicle history information through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, which is run by the U.S. Department of Justice. The National Insurance Crime Bureau provides a free check on whether a vehicle has been declared a salvage at You can also buy reports from companies such as Carfax, Autocheck, or VinAudit. Vehicle history reports may not capture the entire vehicle history and are not substitutes for pre-sale inspections.

If you suspect a seller knowingly hid flood damage, contact the Consumer Protection Division:


For past consumer alerts, click here.

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