Eric Peters: Avoid a Harvey Hooptie

By Eric Peters

As the waters recede from Houston and South Florida, 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.




Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive at



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