How to spot flood-damaged used cars

Amid the rising water and dramatic rescues of Hurricane Harvey, as many as 500,000 cars were flooded.

This can pose a danger to used-car buyers far beyond Texas. Scamsters will clean up some of those vehicles and try to sell them as being in decent condition. Carfax, which tracks the titles of individual vehicles, reports that last year 271,000 previously flooded cars were put back into service.

Many states require that a flooded car carry a notification on its title. But unscrupulous dealers may take those flood cars to states with more lenient rules and get a new title issued with no mention of flooding. This is known in the industry as "title washing."

A car that has been heavily flooded is trouble waiting to happen. Both electronic and mechanical systems may have been damaged. And to make it worse, such damage may not be apparent for a month or two.

So if you're in the used-car market, you need to take steps to protect yourself. First, be suspicious of a super-bargain price that's well below comparable listings for the same make and model.

In addition, when you examine a used vehicle, be sure to:

  • Pull up the carpet and check for unusual moisture. Be suspicious also if the carpet or padding underneath looks newer than other parts of the vehicle.
  • Give it the smell test. Sniff the carpet for any sign of mildew -- an indication that it was wet recently. Be alert for any unusually strong scent of detergent or other cleaners. 
  • Look in the trunk and under the hood for mud or other debris. Even after an otherwise thorough cleaning, small telltale small patches may be left behind.

Finally, run a complete check of a vehicle's title. The vehicle identification number, or VIN, remains constant and should enable tracking a full history or any flooding or other accident damage. Carfax sells individual reports for $39.99 and unlimited reports for $69.99. Autocheck offers a single report for $24.99, or 25 reports good for 21 days for $49.99.

If suspicious flood or accident damage shows up on a car's title, skip it. You can find plenty of other used cars without that sort of troubled history.                   

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.