What Is Title Washing, and How Can It Hide Flood Damage?

Hannah DeWitt
· 4 min read
There are many risks to
car buying
, and one of the worst is shady sellers. Scammers have been known to do things like faking car mileage. Buyers should
check for odometer rollback
to avoid this type of fraud.
Flood-damaged vehicles may also be trickling into the used car market, which can leave an unsuspecting buyer stuck with a malfunctioning car. Fortunately, there are several simple ways to check for car damage. 
Here’s what you need to know about title washing, and some tips on how to avoid buying damaged cars, according to
Flooded cars are usually not salvageable, but sketchy dealers might try to conceal the damage and sell the car for a standard used price.

Title washing and flood-damaged cars

Flood water can ruin a car's electrical and mechanical systems, rust metal parts, and destroy lubricants. It will also encourage mold and mildew, which makes your car stink. 
It would take an experienced mechanic to decide if a flooded vehicle is even worth saving.
Car insurance companies
tend to declare them eligible for salvage and write them off. Even if the vehicles aren't a total loss, they’re expensive to repair.
This is why unscrupulous car dealers hide flood damage in a car's history. They take advantage of different state rules by moving salvage cars across state borders. In the new state, a car that was labeled flood-damaged can get a clean title.
This is called title washing, and it’s particularly common right after large floods. Buyers might not know what’s wrong with their car until they finally take it to a mechanic for costly repairs.
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Tips to avoid damaged cars

If you go to the National Insurance Crime Bureau website, you can enter a used car's vehicle identification number, or VIN, in their VINCheck service for free. This takes data from insurers and will report if a car was declared salvaged or a total loss.
You can also get a full vehicle history report from AutoCheck through Experian’s online portal. These reports will provide all the important information about branding and registration. Scammers won't be able to hide their title washing from these sites because they track the car's entire history.
Once you can physically see the car, inspect it thoroughly. Flooding leaves particular signs on the underside, in the trunk, and on the engine bay. You can decide if it’s worth taking the car from there.

What are the signs of a flood-damaged car?

A car that has been in a flood may have a damp carpet and might smell of mold. But the dealer may have replaced or shampooed the carpet to hide evidence.
Rust is one of the biggest signs of a flooded car. You can look for rust under the dashboard or carpet, in the center console, on the brake discs, and on the underside of the car.
Another sign of a car that has been flooded is caked-on debris.
Mud and leaves
might have dried onto the underside of the car or in the alternator crevices. Particles might have gotten into the trunk and small recesses in the engine bay.
The most telling signs of water damage are waterlogged headlights and malfunctioning electrical components. Flood water can damage wiring, so look for visible corrosion on the electronics under the car and in the engine.
Avoiding a damaged car takes savvy, but now you have the knowledge to make a smart purchase. Once you do find a good car, you’ll also want to keep it protected with good car insurance.
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