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FTC: Beware of flood-damaged cars for sale

Heavy rain causes flooding as Tropical Storm ... 01:57

When flooding hits, as it has recently in Texas, the Midwest and other parts of the U.S., vehicles often get damaged. But flood damage to cars often isn't obvious, potentially putting buyers at risk.

The Federal Trade Commission warned on Wednesday about the possibility of flood damaged cars coming onto the market, even if you don't live in one of the areas affected by the severe weather. These vehicles could end up anywhere in the country, the agency said. That's something that happened after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The situation highlights the need for consumers to have mechanics examine used vehicles prior to their purchase. In addition, the FTC recommends consumers take the following steps to help avoid ending up with a car with hidden flood damage:

  • Look for signs of water damage. That includes stains, mildew, sand or silt under the carpet and mats. Also look for those signs on the dashboard and where the spare tire is stored. In addition, check the headlights and taillights to see if there is any fogging.
  • Give the car a good sniff. Do you smell cleaners or disinfectants? That could be a sign the seller is trying to cover up a bad smell, like mold.
  • Use a service like Carfax, which for a fee ($39.99 for one report) provides users with a history of the vehicle they're considering purchasing. The National Insurance Crime Bureau also offers a free online database that lets you type in a vehicle identification number and find out whether a car was flood-damaged or stolen.

The FTC also notes that when a car is damaged by water and an insurance claim is filed, the status of the car's title is supposed to change. A car that has a "salvage title" is one that the insurance company considers a total loss because it either can't be repaired or will cost more to repair than it is worth. A car with a "flood title" is one that was damaged by water that reached high enough to fill the car's engine compartment, the FTC said.

That title status should appear in a vehicle history report.

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