Hurricane Harvey is estimated to have destroyed half a million cars in its path. These flood-damaged cars will often be deemed unrepairable and many will be considered total losses by insurance companies. Even so, quite a few of them will end up being sold to unsuspecting buyers, often in other states. It’s something I hear about after every major hurricane. In situations like this, it is important for used car shoppers to remain vigilant and try to avoid getting stuck with one of these cars. There are often no legal remedies or, if there are, they may not be worth pursuing.

In most states, cars that sustain heavy flood damage are retitled as “Flood Damaged” cars after insurance companies resolve their claims. The title to the car is branded as such in an attempt to ensure future buyers of the car are made aware of its true history. The problem is that unscrupulous folk can often get the brands removed from the titles by taking the cars to other states with different branding rules and getting the cars retitled.

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Further, not every car damaged in the hurricane will be given a branded title. Suppose you are an individual who merely carried the least amount of insurance necessary to keep your car on the road. If your car got flood damaged you wouldn’t bother to report it to your insurance company. You’re just stuck with a soaked car. Clean it up as best you can and sell it. The title would not help anyone figure out what you did.

If you are in the market for a used car in the coming months, it will be especially important for you to watch for cars which may have been damaged by the hurricane. While you should always inspect any used car you are looking at, you should specifically be looking for telltale signs of water damage. Pull up carpeting in the trunk and look for sand or silt. Do the same in the passenger compartment, especially around the edges and in the corners. Look inside the engine compartment as well for signs of high water. If you are not confident in your own ability to do this, find and hire someone who can do it for you.

Often times, these cars will have a foul odor from mold and mildew which formed before the car was cleaned. Or, the opposite: It might smell too heavily of bleach or other cleaning agent used to try and remove the mold or mildew smell.

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Obviously, you should check the title history. Any of the commercial companies that provide reports would be of help here but don’t just look for the “Flood Damaged” title brands. At this point, any car that spent the month of August, 2017, registered in Texas should be suspect. While that might seem a bit extreme, it is the easiest way to avoid getting stuck with a flood damaged car. There are a lot of used cars out there so you may as well play the odds in your favor.

Legally, what if you got stuck with a flood damaged car? This is why I encourage you to do your homework to avoid it. It is very difficult to pursue someone on this. If the car has changed hands a few times before you bought it, you might not even be able to prove – or find – who actually “washed” the title to remove its branding (if it had one). And if the title was not branded but the car was simply cleaned up and sold? Even worse. They’ll say they just did what everyone does before they sold the car – they cleaned it up and sold it.

And lawsuits against individuals are the hardest in the automotive law arena. People move around, are hard to find, and often don’t have enough money to make them worth suing. Better to just not be in a position where you need to sue someone in the first place.

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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 25 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow.

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