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Is The Deal All Wet? 6 Ways to Tell if the Car You’re Buying Has Been Damaged by Flooding

Extreme weather can result in extensive property damage. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey ,Irma, and now Maria, tens of thousands of people have had their cars damaged by flooding, resulting in a frustrating situation that can create a major headache for future car owners too. Here’s why.

The Post-Flood Process

After the flood, the owner reports their damaged vehicle to the insurance company, which compensates them for any losses after an assessment. Many of these cars are then sent to an auto recycler, but others are branded as flood damaged and receive a salvage title. Once properly identified by a state agency and labeled, the cars can be listed for sale.

These refurbished vehicles are supposed to be sold with full disclosure of the earlier damage, but unethical dealers and private sellers will try to profit at the expense of unwitting buyers either withholding the flood details or ‘title washing’, in which they simply erase the car’s history.

Signs to Watch For

While there is no sure-fire way to avoid purchasing a misrepresented car, there are steps you can take to ensure that the car you are interested in is not a flood survivor.


  • Musty odor. Moldy or musty odors inside the car are a sign of mildew from prolonged exposure to water. Conversely, strong air fresheners or an overpowering smell of cleaning chemicals can suggest that the seller is trying to hide something. Run the air condition to see a musty smell issues from the vents.
  • Caked-on mud. Watch for caked-on mud in places that are difficult to clean, such as under around the seat tracks, under the glove compartment, and in the gaps between panels in the trunk. It would be a good idea to have your own mechanic check for mud buildup behind wiring harnesses, in the crevices of the alternator, and other hard-to-clean places.
  • Brand-new upholstery. Although this is not always the case, new carpeting and upholstery in an older car may be a sign that the original was flood-damaged and had to be removed to make a sale.
  • Visible water lines. Look for signs that the vehicle sat in standing water at some point. Red flags include differences in color between the upper and lower upholstering, water lines in the trunk or engine compartment  and dampness or fogging in the headlights lens or reflector.
  • Evidence of rust. Check for evidence of flaking metal or rust that are too advanced for a late-model vehicle. Rusty screws under the dashboard and other exposed metal components displaying rust are other red flags.
  • Missing drain plugs. If the drain plugs under the vehicle and on the bottom of its doors are missing, it may have been done to drain water.


If you purchased a used vehicle only to discover that it shows signs of unreported flood damage, contact a consumer protection attorney who can evaluate your options.

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