Beware of Flooded Cars Resurfacing for Sale on a Car Lot near You
Image: NOAA

We've all seen images of cars submerged under several feet of water following severe storms and natural disasters. Have you ever wondered what happens to those cars once the floodwater recedes and everything dries out?

Unfortunately, a number of them will be turning up for sale on the internet or at car lots halfway across the country, with no mention to potential buyers that they were once deeply submerged in dirty water.

Although some states require disclosure of flood damage or salvage on a car title, other states do not, so you may not be able to rely on the car title for that information.

It's best to be a cautious buyer and check out the car carefully before you buy. Since flood damage can be hard to spot, it's a good idea to consider paying an expert mechanic to inspect it for you.

Below are a few simple steps from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that you can take to help protect yourself:

See: if there are any high-water or mud marks on the engine, the wheel wells, the trunk or even the glove box. Get a flashlight and take a look in those hard-to-reach places that might not have been cleaned. Lift up the carpet and look underneath for mud, rust or dirt.

Smell: the upholstery and the carpeting. Do they smell funky? Also, turn on the heat and see if there's an electric/burning smell that might come from damaged wires. And turn on the AC and see if you get a blast of mildew-scented air.

Feel: the wires under the dashboard and in the engine (obviously when the car is turned off!). Do they feel brittle? That may be the result of immersion in water.

Listen: to the sound system/radio. If it sounds bad or isn't working at all, that could be a sign of water damage. Ask why it's not working.

Ask: the seller outright if the car was ever in a flood. While they may not have volunteered the information, they may be reluctant to lie when asked directly.

Consider: buying a vehicle history report that should tell you if the car's been in a flood or issued a salvage title.

It's important to realize that this isn't just an issue of a bad-smelling car. Floods can damage vital parts of a car like the airbag system, brakes, and electrical system – and the damage may not show up right away. Your safety could be at risk if you are unknowingly riding around in a flood-damaged car.

Buying a car is one of the biggest consumer purchases you'll make. Don't put your hard-earned money into a flood-damaged lemon. Know Before You Owe!

Get more information on avoiding used car fraud from the U.S. Department of Justice. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also offers a detailed guide to buying a used car.