Avoiding a Louisiana U Boat

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Something you don’t want may be floating your way soon.flooded cars pic

Well, it probably won’t actually float there. More likely, a truck will carry it there. To a used car lot near you – and far from the scuba diving lesson it got in Louisiana during the recent (and still ongoing) historic flooding down there.

Dry ‘em out – and ship ‘em out.

Hope no one notices.

You’d better… before any money changes hands.

Water-logged cars are always bad news, but a water-logged modern car is worse news. Rust and moldy carpets aren’t fun but they can be dealt with. Endless electrical problems caused by water in electrical components and electrical connections never meant to get wet is much harder – and can be much more expensive – to deal with.

Sometimes, the only fix is to throw the car away and start over.

Better yet, avoid becoming the owner of a former U-boat.

Here’s how:

* Pay attention to news stories about flooding –

When there is a major regional flood – as is occurring right now in Louisiana – there will inevitably be an increase in flood-damaged cars on the market elsewhere. Your risk of acquiring one just went up. Your “radar” should therefore be turned up. A too-good-to-be-true deal probably is exactly that, especially if it’s a popular model.

* Establish provenance –

You want to know where it came from.flood car 2

This will be a challenge if the car you’re looking at was water-boarded at some point down the line. Flood-damaged cars are often sold at vehicle auctions and change hands (and locations) several times before arriving at a dealer near you. You’ll want to dig deep. Services such as Carfax help, but it is very possible to “launder” titles so they look clean as fresh-laid snow. Sometimes you can find much more useful evidence on your own. Look in the door jambs and on the windshield, inside the car for those little service reminder stickers oil change places often leave. You might find one placed there by a Jiffy Lube in Louisiana.maintenance stickers

Check under the hood and in the glovebox for such stickers, too.

In particular, flip through the owner’s manual and any paperwork you find. Prior owners often jotted stuff down that will give you definite clues about the car’s origins. If the owner’s manual and paperwork are absent, that is a bad sign. It suggests the paperwork got wet – and was thrown away. Or had information about the car the current seller preferred you not have. A brand-new (replacement) manual in an older car is also worrying.    

Be very suspicious of any anomalies on the title, such as several owners in a short period of time. And if you see – or hear – the word “salvage,” flee.

* Look for signs of moisture where moisture should never be –

Carpets are obvious, but these can be replaced. Same goes for door panels. But surface rust on interior metal parts is much harder to hide because those parts are harder to replace. Instead of looking down at the carpet and floorpans, look up, underneath the dash/steering wheel. Stick your head near the gas/brake pedals and – using a flashlight, examine the metal bracings (and also the metal brake/gas/clutch pedal levers). Closely examine the fuse panel, which is usually located in a place that should not get wet unless the car was flooded.flood damage pic

Pop the hood and trunk and look at their undersides. Behind any sound-deadening or trim material.

If the car was ever underwater, you will probably know it immediately, just by doing this. If you see rust in these places, especially if the car is only a few years old, it’s not the car you want.

Other good places to look for signs of prior immersion are headlights and tailights; these are usually sealed pretty tightly, such that rain water won’t get in. But if they are submerged, it’s another matter. Standing water inside headlight/tail-light assemblies is a bright red flag. Carefully look around the interior of the engine bay for water lines around the quarter panels. There should be none.flood pic last

If you can – and you should – get the car up on a lift and have a look at its underside. If it was ever in deep and standing water, rusting of exposed suspension and other parts will usually be obvious – unless the car was subsequently treated to a spray can black paint shower (or similar) which is hugely suspicious and good reason to scratch that particular car off your list.

*Get in the car and go for a drive, with the windows rolled up

Now use your nose. Mold has a particular smell. Also the “new car smell” sprays that used car dealers often use to cover up mold (and smoke) smell. Either is cause for further investigation. If it’s not humid outside and condensation forms on interior surfaces, like the windshield, it’s another reason for suspicion. Once a car gets a “Louisiana bath,” it is very hard to dry it out completely, quickly – which is a problem for a seller trying to unload a U boat.

*Check the operation/function of all dashboard lights and electrical accessories –  

This should be on your list regardless of concerns about flood damage, but it’s particularly important if flood damage is suspected. Warning lights in the dashboard that come on/stay on/flicker on intermittently, balky power windows or power sliding doors/liftgates in cars not very old (ten years or less) without lots of miles on them (under 100k) should be thoroughly investigated as potential clues to deeper issues.

Most of all, keep in mind the axioms that there’s no such thing as a free lunch – and any deal that sounds too good to be true usually is.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Some flash rust under the seats and steering column is normal – car makers don’t protect them with coatings. But major rust – oh no. Stay away.

  2. Some insurance companies have a rule that a flooded car is totaled if water reached the bottom of the dashboard. Even that is a bit lenient because so many cars have electronics in the center console and under the hood, but it’s a start.

    I hate to say this, federalism and all that, but vehicle titling is one area that requires some sort of national standards. Once a car gets a salvage title, there should be no legal way to transport it to another state and then launder the title. (You could also say that not keeping the salvage indication when retitled elsewhere is a violation of the full faith and credit provision in the Constitution—but states often don’t recognize other states’ concealed carry permits either, right?)

    Historically far too many games have been played with titles, such as the once-common practice among some dealers of retitling a new car built for one model year as the next model year when the new crop appeared. So you would get a ’63 Ford titled, legally at the time, as a ’64 because the dealer still had it on his lot when the true ’64s came out. Laundering titles to sell flooded or other totaled vehicles in another state is more of the same, and it needs to be stopped.

    Once a car is totaled or flooded, issuing a salvage title should be a requirement. Then scrapping the vehicle should be the next required step, no if, ands, or buts. Antique/historic vehicles could be excepted with safeguards, but others should not.

    • I agree man, regulations and standards are very important.

      An interesting article. https://mises.org/library/primer-regulation

      I always try to think about kosher foods. There is no government regulation behind it other than those against fraud, and yet, there are multiple organizations that regulate quality. It’s an important thing to get right for many.

      Or, the internet. No one tells anyone how to run a server, when, or where, yet it happens every day with the help of hundreds of private standards groups. Some just give it out, some certify.

  3. Some insurance companies have a rule that a flooded car is totaled if water reached the bottom of the dashboard. Even that is a bit lenient because so many cars have electronics in the center console and under the hood, but it’s a start.

    Hate to say this, federalism and all that, but vehicle titling is one area that requires some sort of national standards. Once a car gets a salvage title, there should be no legal way to transport it to another state and then launder the title. (You could also say that not keeping the salvage indication when retitled elsewhere is a violation of the full faith and credit provision in the Constitution—but states often don’t recognize other states’ concealed carry permits either, right?)

    Historically far too many games have been played with titles, such as the once-common practice among some dealers of retitling a new car built for one model year as the next model year when the new crop appeared. So you would get a ’63 Ford titled, legally at the time, as a ’64 because the dealer still had it on his lot when the true ’64s came out. Laundering titles to sell flooded or other totaled vehicles in another state is more of the same, and it needs to be stopped.

    Once a car is totaled or flooded, issuing a salvage title should be a requirement. Then scrapping the vehicle should be the next required step, no if, ands, or buts. Antique/historic vehicles could be excepted with safeguards, but others should not be.

  4. Drivetribe.com

    Should be an awesome website, once it gets going.

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  5. Great tips! In the 2004-05 Hurricane season, the Florida Keys were hit really bad. The worst of them was Hurricane Wilma that flooded damn near all of Key West where I was living at the time. The car dealerships were all underwater. Once the water receded those sunken cars were removed to the mainland where who knows what happened to them. Salt water is not a friend of autos/trucks. I didn’t own a vehicle then–didn’t need on on a 2 mile x 4 island. A couple of years later I bought an ’05 truck from a local dealer, had it checked out by my mechanic and got a clean bill of health despite some salt water markings on the chassis. That truck is still running at just over 111,000 miles.

    Those “cleaned up” titles are definitely a problem. I saw news reports of some of those cars ending up in New York that had been completely under water, cleaned up and sold to unsuspecting folks.

  6. Ford has DSO codes of where a car was originally shipped for sale. I suppose other automakers do as well. With dealer trades and people moving around this is well less than 100% accurate but if a car shows up at too good to be price and it’s manufacturer code for where it shipped indicates a place that had seen flooding not that long before that would scream look more closely at the very least.

  7. It’s really worth spending a few bucks to have any potential addition to the fleet inspected by a good mechanic. We have flooding periodically up here and, after each instance, there are the sob stories about people buying u-boats.

    On the other hand, my buddy bought an old jeep that went through the ice. The insurance company sold it to him for a song. He stripped it down, replaced the wiring harness and is still driving it ten years later!

  8. “it is very possible to “launder” titles so they look clean as fresh-laid snow.”

    But Eric, Uncle said he’d go after anyone who falsifies documentation! He made it illegal to even try it. Buyer beware is an archaic phrase from the distant past thanks to the bureaucrat and the rules. Where would we be without signatures and paperwork? Why, he even prosecuted Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Manning and David Petraeus for violating rules around handling secret documents. Imagine what he would do to someone who actually lied on a piece of parchment!

    (For those of you with no sense of humor, that was sarcasm)

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