Avoid a Harvey Hooptie

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As the waters recede from Houston, thousands of flooded cars will be aired out – and shipped out – to unsuspecting used car lots all over the country. Their titles as “washed” as their interiors (and the rest of them, too).

As OJ used to say – and will probably say soon again – look out!

Ideally, these flood-damaged unterseebooten would be written off as collateral damage of the hurricane. But when there’s a buck to be made, people will try to make a buck. What happens is as follows:

The cars – many of them brand-new – are declared total losses and the dealership gets compensated by the insurance company. The cars ought to be recycled at this point – or parted out (some parts are still perfectly usable). But because it is not hard – for the expert crooked car seller – to pull out the carpet, dry the obvious things, clean the car up and then (critical) efface any mention of “salvage” or “flood damage” from the car’s title/vehicle history report – and then sell the seemingly near-new/low-miles car far, far away from the source of its swim, he does exactly that.

And this is a ride you do not want to take.

It’s always been bad news for a car to take a dip. Water in places it’s not supposed to get to – like underneath the carpets and underneath the headliner and inside the trunk – generates both funk and rust. The car will smell moldy no matter what you do, unless you douse it with some overpowering other smell – which is common procedure with flood-damaged cars. Mask the funk with the nose hair-curling aroma of artificial patchouli. This, by the way, is a Danger! Danger! Will Robinson! olfactory warning that something is very wrong with the car you’re looking at.

After the funk will come the rust.

The interior metal – underneath the carpets, under the headliner, in the trunk – was not meant to get wet and so is not generally rustproofed, as exterior panels meant to get wet usually are. Add to this the covering with carpet and other such that keeps the metal wet for a long time.

Flood-damaged cars rot out in weird and expensive to fix places. Like holes in the roof. Fred Flintstone-style holes in the floorpans are no fun, either.

But the real fun comes as a consequences of electrical components never meant to be immersed being immersed. Sensors on the engine; connectors in the wiring harness. The car’s ECU – the computer that runs the works. The body control module, which runs things like the power windows and door locks. The LCD/infotainment system. Imagine throwing your smartphone or laptop in the river, leaving it there a couple of days and then airing it out, wiping off the mud and then advertising it for sale on Craigs List.

A modern car is a smartphone/laptop – just one that moves and is a lot more expensive to deal with when it needs fixing.

And sometimes, isn’t worth fixing – just like a water-logged smartphone.

So, how to avoid one of these overly H2O’d Harvey Hoopties?

Don’t trust Carfax or any other title search service as 100 percent reliable. They are helpful, but not necessarily authoritative.

Do look for evidence of water penetration in areas that should never show signs of having been wet. These include: Under the hood; remove the pop-on/pop-off plastic engine cover that almost all new car engines have on top; if the underside shows mud or anything that suggests water, move on; be suspicious if a new/not-old car has had its sound-deadening removed. Pat the carpet, especially underneath the seats; feel for wetness. If you see water marks anywhere, forget it.

Drive the car with the windows rolled up and the heat on. Do this on a dry day. If you see fog forming by the air vents, it’s another Danger! Danger! Will Robinson! warning. You will probably smell funk, too.

Check all dash warning lights. They should all come on briefly when the ignition is first turned on, then turn off after a few moments. If some – especially the “check engine” light – don’t come on, it’s possible the bulb was pulled to make it appear that all is ok. Find out why the light isn’t coming on.

Look closely at the instrument cluster for signs of mist/haze on the interior side of the clear plastic. Check all head and tail-light assemblies for the same thing. Sometimes, you’ll see actual water floating around inside.

These are all inspections you can do – without tools or special knowledge.

It’s also always a good idea to get the car looked over by someone who does have specialized knowledge and tools. A professional mechanic you trust – who works for you, not the dealership where you’re thinking about buying the car.

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Author of "Automotive Atrocities" and "Road Hogs" (MBI). Currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia.


  1. Its nuts,( what ? you say)its crazy we would put up with this, our people who died in Foreign lands to make those people wealthy.

  2. My wife did a spiteful FU (because I made Her get rid of a POS(bought new)Honda Passport.She bought a newer model Passport POS, the first thing that happened the fuel gauge didn’t work, then other things happened it was always something going out on that thing, the car had a strong smell of mildew ( it ran fine ) the bolts and fasteners underneath were extremely rusty, I couldn’t prove it but suspected it was a flood vehicle, finally traded it at a loss(with new tires on it ) never plan to deal with that dealer again.
    On the other hand a friend had a 2wd Toyota pickup that went through a 50 year flood( you could see the water marks in the headlight housings) He bought it back from the insurance company for peanuts and dried it out as best He could and replaced the fluids and oils in it and as far as I know its still running that was a good many years ago.It seems sometimes you can get by with this.

  3. We had a flood in 2008 in my county in Central Indiana. One of the police departments had a brand new Dodge Charger and about 10 older, not-so-cool but perfectly serviceable cars of the Chevy variety, I think. They parked the new Charger on high ground and saved it. The others, they left in the police lot and let them get destroyed. So of course, all the officers then got new Chargers. Sneaky bastards.

  4. When all that water hit, and I saw on the news all those vehicles underwater, I thought about all those people whose cars now were ruined. The broken window fallacy really becomes apparent when you realize that everyone whose car got flooded out will have to replace their vehicles, spending money on transportation that could have been put to better use elsewhere. Unfortunately, a great many of those affected by the flooding were economically marginal to begin with. So, the money they will have to spend on transportation will come from monies they barely have to recover from losing everything or practically everything. And the idiots in DC and New York talk about how Harvey will be a boost to the economy! They should have it happen to them. Maybe then they might understand. I doubt it, however. You can’t fix stupid.

    • Yep. When a lot of people can’t handle a $400 emergency out of savings, paying a $500 deductible is going to be a real challenge for them. Not to mention any “gap” left over between what the insurance thought the car was worth vs. what was owed on it. And on top of that, they have to replace all their household goods that got soaked, and expenses associated with living in a hotel for several days before the city will let them back in their home.

      • Chip, my newest “Platinum” Ins plan has such high deductibles as to be practically worthless on minor medical things such as scans. There is an imaging center in Ohio that will do the whole Enchilada cheaper than paying the deductibles this plan espouses for these big medical centers. The only racket bigger than insurance is War.(Ask Smedley Butler )

        • Hi Kevin,

          Insurance – as it exists today – is in my opinion one of the single greatest contributors to the impoverishment of the average person. If one is in a position to do so – and one’s real (as opposed to neurotic) “risk profile” is minimal – one can save a tremendous amount of money by simply doing without it, as previous generations generally did.

          As a home owner, I decided to stop paying for home insurance – because I can (as a homeowner) and because I calculated the risk of a major loss to be extremely low. This alone saves me at least $1,500 annually – a sum almost exactly equivalent to the property taxes I have no choice but to pay. In effect, skipping the home insurance eliminates my tax payment. I “get back” – over say a 20 year period – $30,000 that would otherwise have had to be earned to be given over to the insurance mafia, in addition to the property tax.

          I refuse to buy health insurance, assuming the “risk” – which I judge to be low, given I am relatively young and have no medical issues and take very good care of myself, so am not likely to have them. Instead of handing over $500 each month to the insurance mafia for “coverage” – I save that money and – if need be – spend it as necessary on medical costs. Which costs me far less than paying to be “covered.”

          I keep car insurance low by not buying or owning anything worth more than a few thousand dollars; minimum liability-only policies.

          If I could eliminate that, I’d have another $1,000 in my pocket annually – enough to just about cover my monthly electric and phone bill.

          I hate the insurance mafia with the incandescent fury of the core of the sun.

          • Re: Insurance: Hey Eric, when I was a kid I can remember Doctors telling me they worked their way through medical school washing dishes and busing tables. When student loans became popular, college tuition skyrocketed. IT’s the same with everything from mortgages to health care. I suspect that one of these days, the insurance companies are going to start offering routine maintenance insurance. When that happens the price for an oil change and filter will skyrocket. Add outlawing that type of thing for the DIY guy and what do you do; stockpile filters and oil?

            I searched around for a while looking for the best fixer I could find for the least amount of money. I wanted something that didn’t require much of an investment so I could just walk away if necessary. So no homeowners insurance, no property taxes, not much invested to begin with. If I were paying rent on this place I would have already paid double what I’ve got into it now.
            Car insurance is expensive here in Florida so I’m liquidating my fleet down to one truck.

          • Funny thing about the sun it appears there are cooler places(so to speak) in its interior, wouldn’t it be a hoot if we discovered stars were the exterior vents of “Black Holes” from other realities.
            Anyway dear departed Uncle was paying(in my opinion) two worthless accident policies(if He dies an accidental death- the would pay a small benefit , at His age accidents were not that likely( unless you count the bumbling mistakes the first Hospital made when He was getting His final treatment, before He dies at the second Hospital )These basically worthless policies are so inticing only a few dollars a month from your checking account, try to collect on them .Its a shame it borders on fraud what they talk elderly people into. It appears some people have no shame,
            As I said before my “Platinum Plan ” has such high deductibles it is almost worthless except during a catastrophe, These Plutocrats better wake up the pitchforks are being sharpened.

            • My cousin’s husband has been selling insurance his whole life, and a few years ago he hired on with Calperg which handles all the pension plans for the teacher’s unions as well as a lot of other State government pension plans. He couldn’t believe what a mess it was. He says nobody is going to get paid (except of course himself for the time being). So he collects a salary off what these people are putting into their pension plans, and when these people retire they get squat.

              • Funny thing about all these screwy”Insurances”,I applied for'”unemployment insurance”first of this week and got a letter today telling Me I was denied{they couldn’t find my “quarters” funny thing when the state wants to dig up dirt to cause you trouble they have no problem}I have tried my best to report an overpayment to them before( they treated Me like I was crazy) then a good while later they sent me a snotty letter demanding prompt recompense or I was going to get in serious trouble.I have a few scant years to retirement and I was hoping to never have to beg the state for benefits again, it happened, we were short on work. Egads!
                It’s not a nice thing to be dependant on the state for anything and for pete’s sake why couldn’t they work out a system with employers, so they would be encouraged to keep people working ?(the employers pretty much pay for this anyway)
                How many years do youse Guys give it before this system as it is now, collapses?If the population keeps swelling, we common folk are going to be worth less no matter our skill sets and willingness to honestly work.

  5. I’m confused in that doesn’t titling a car *start* when it is first sold? So, a brand new car from the factory, that hasn’t been sold to anybody, doesn’t even have a title yet? Am I right? If this is the case, the brand-new washed out cars would not come up in a Carfax search. However, any used car deemed a total loss/flood would come up. This would be due to the fact that, as used, it has had an owner: thereby the first-event to create a title on the car… Can anyone clarify??

    • Years ago I drove a car into a lake. It sat there for a few hours while I went searching for someone to tow it out. After a few friends came out to tow it out and see the spectacle for themselves, I was able to start it up. The car wasn’t totally submerged, but it was over the grill. You could only see the hood, windshield, and part of the trunk. When I opened the door to exit, the water flooded the inside of the car. It ran pretty rough for a while, but after I aired it out, and cleaned the carpeting. It looked good as new. I didn’t report it to the insurance company so there is no way it would show up on a Carfax report.

  6. I would like to add something not mentioned in the article — it can’t be a good thing to have crankcase, transmission and differential oils contaminated with floodwater. A flood car reseller may likely change the engine oil, but probably not the transmission or differential oil.

    On a more positive note, several years ago I had access to a dealer-only wholesale auction run by a large national chain, and the auctioneers used to announce flood damaged cars. I don’t know if that was state law or corporate policy, and of course if that information hadn’t been given to them presumably they wouldn’t know about it.

  7. I was looking at an SUV a few months ago. The price was fantastic. When I went to look at it, it looked like it was brand new (it was a 2008). Looked too good to be true so I got my flash light out and crawled underneath to have a good look see. I always check the inside of the frame rails for scaling. There didn’t appear to be any problems there, but then I noticed that the trailer hitch as well as those chain loops that are threaded were freshly painted. It actually looked like they had painted right over the rust. The engine compartment looked good, but there was some oxidation on the block. These were all yellow flags for me. When I got down and looked under the seats, the foam had a brown dust on it, and there were these metal bars which were also rusted. For me that seemed to be the clincher. As good as the price was, I just couldn’t take a chance on buying a rust bucket. Other than that, these guys detailed that SUV to perfection. They don’t have to get everything, just enough for the average buyer to see what a shiny new SUV looks like at a phenomenal price.

  8. “pissing down our backs and telling us it was raining, just like Josey said.”

    Slight correction, it was Fletcher that said that to Capt. “Red Legs” Terrell. Capt. Terrell was the one that said, when challenged about the war’s end, “Doin’ right ain’t got no end.” He’s the poster boy for our modern bureaucratic state…it should suffer the same fate.

    BTW, if you’re not familiar with The Outlaw Josey Wales, Cool Hand Luke or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you would do well to watch them to understand our current dilemma.

  9. For the right car cheap enough I just may disassemble it, clean it all up, put everything back together with dielectric grease for all the electrical connections.

    Say a brand new GT350 for $200.

  10. You would think car dealers would have better plans for hurricanes. You often have a few days notice, why is it so hard to ship the cars (at least the more valuable ones) out of state for a couple weeks? Load them up and park them on some parking lot in Oklahoma.

    Back when Indiana had the onerous inventory tax, dealers would literally do that, load up the inventory and park it out of state. Yes, it was cheaper to hire trucking firms to load up hundreds of cars and park them just over the border then to pay the tax.

    • I never understood that either. If I were running an insurance company I would probably cover some to all of that expense. Why? It’s a far cheaper claim. Sure maybe some ratio will be paid needlessly because the storm is not as bad as promised. That’s all math. The insurers employ people to figure that out. It would probably take five false alarms or more to even come close to one “small” flooded car dealer lot claim.

      • I believe it’s because no one knows where the storm will hit until it’s too late.

        I’m in florida right now, do i pack up and hit a hotel for a few days, lose money and potentially my job? Or do i stick around an hope for the best.

        • Hey Jason, I’m guessing you’re in southern Florida and on the coast, no? I’m an hour north of St. Pete, but inland a good 40 miles so I don’t have to sweat it. I was born prepared. I actually got prepared to hunker down or bug out a few years ago so I can relax while everyone else is running around looking for a gas station with gas. The reason everyone north of central Florida is going nuts is because the media is making such a big deal out of this thing. They get everyone worked into a lather because they want to sensationalize these things for their “climate change” agenda.

  11. Another boon for the banks……in the form of insurance, the really profitable side till they got bailed out after the 08 crash and instead of losing their asses and going to prison they found themselves with so much taxpayer money they got the biggest bonuses of their lives.

    They lost $15T, destroyed countless lives and businesses, including the entire housing industry(mainly small companies and people who lost everything they had along with their livelihoods and frequently their lives).

    When you destroy an entire industry that “trickle down” theory came home to roost with a vengeance.

    After this country had people in the WH who promoted “voodoo economics “we all got to figure out what the term meant in the following years.

    Trickle down, and I worked for a major corporation that made record profits and didn’t spread it to their employees, meant they were pissing down our backs and telling us it was raining, just like Josey said.

    In my experience it requires the insurance company to inspect a vehicle with a salvage title to change the title status. Since they’ll have to pay out some serious money they’ll be looking to make it back by the proverbial hook or crook…..and vehicles will be their saving grace. They’ll all be thinking, but not saying, thank god for mandatory car insurance.

  12. Keynesian economists already starting to crow about how Harvey will be a boon to US carmakers:


    “In addition to seeing replacement demand from the heavily vehicle-dependent city of Houston, manufacturers led by Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV are expected to sell more pickups, both to support reconstruction efforts and meet demand from a market that already loves trucks. The shares of the three largest U.S. automakers rallied Friday even as the industrywide sales pace missed estimates.”

    Meanwhile, how many of these vehicles are going to have enough comprehensive insurance coverage for a complete replacement? How many vehicles will have enough insurance to cover a total replacement with a new vehicle, especially if it was purchased years ago? How many of us keep up our policies’ replacement payout when compared to the cost of a new vehicle? If not who has enough savings to be able to put down the difference in cash?

    More debt! Higher insurance premiums! Broken windows everywhere! Let the good times roll!