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10 Ways Car Shoppers Can Sniff Out a Flood-Damaged Vehicle

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In the wake of massive destruction caused by hurricanes in recent years, Americans again and again witness how disaster can bring out the best in us, in the form of people helping people in a crisis. Unfortunately tough times can also bring out some not-so-great instincts in those willing to exploit a tragedy for personal gain.

Related: You’re Trapped in Your Car in Rising Floodwaters: Here’s What to Do

After hurricane floodwaters recede, they can leave behind thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of vehicles swamped by the storm. Shoppers in the months following a hurricane need to beware: Water-damaged cars from unscrupulous sellers could soon flood the market — so you need to know how to spot one.

Cars declared a total loss by insurance estimators will be red-flagged with salvage titles, then sold at auction to dismantlers who will sell off the parts or crush the vehicle and sell it for scrap. Scammers inevitably will also acquire many of these cars, clean them up, wash the title, then take them out of state for sale to an unwitting buyer who thinks they’re getting a honey of a deal on a used car.

Here are 10 tips from the National Insurance Crime Bureau for spotting a flood-damaged car:

1. Run the vehicle identification number to ensure the car doesn’t have a salvage title. You can find links to reputable VIN checkers at the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System website.

2. Inspect the vehicle — including giving it the ol’ sniff test — for water stains, mildew, sand or silt under the carpet, floormats, headliner and dashboard.

3. Inspect the upholstery and door panel for fading.

4. Check for rust around screws in the center console and areas water doesn’t usually reach.

5. Check for mud, grit or rust corrosion in the spare-tire compartment and in small crevices under the hood.

6. Inspect the seat belt retractor for moisture, mildew or grime.

7. Make sure the speakers work; door-mounted speakers will often be damaged in a flood.

8. Pay special attention to the wheels; aluminum-alloys may be coated in a white powder and show signs of pitting or dimples.

9. Have a mechanic inspect the vehicle prior to purchase.

10. Trust your instincts. If a deal sounds too good to be true … well, you know the rest.’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

Photo of Matt Schmitz
Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers. Email Matt Schmitz

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