Watch out for flooded cars in California

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Don’t let yourself be fooled into buying one of these messes!

After every flood disaster there is always a flood (pun intended) of water damaged cars on the used market. With large portions of California affected by a flood, you can expect to start seeing flood-damaged cars in your market before it’s too long. If you want to buy a car that has been underwater for any length of time and you know that’s what you’re getting, great. What’s worse is that some people buy these vehicles without knowing that they have been submerged for hours or even days in murky waters.

See how a Kentucky car collection miraculously escaped flooding here.

A flood damaged car can have all sorts of problems ranging from rust to mechanical problems. This is why, unless you want to do extensive work on one, you should probably stay away from these rides.

A telltale sign that a car has been flooded is a musty smell. Vendors might try to cover it with air fresheners, but if you put your nose to the carpet and take a big whiff, you’ll probably smell it. Also, turn on the heat and then the air conditioning to see if a musty/mildew smell comes from the vents.

As you check the carpets, pay attention to any discoloration. For example, if the upper and lower carpeting or upholstery doesn’t quite match, it could be due to a hasty replacement job after a flood.

Be careful of sand or silty dirt found in the nooks and crannies of a car. Sellers may detail the interior to try and eliminate any signs that it was in a flood, but they will lose points such as between the seats and the center console, under the edge of a carpet, in the glove box, door pockets or even under some seats. You may find dirt or grit accumulated in parts of the trunk or engine compartment.

Raised moisture is another potential sign of a car that has been flooded. This typically shows up in exterior or interior lights, but can also show up in dashboards, clocks, etc. Also look in the spare wheel for moisture.

Strange noises from different systems in the car, such as the brakes or steering column, could also indicate flooding. Small bits of sand or dirt trapped in mechanical components will make squeals or other sounds you wouldn’t normally hear. Also, looking at smoke coming out of the tailpipe, which would mean the vehicle wouldn’t be passing emissions to anyone, but could also indicate flood damage.

Of course, one of the best ways to detect flood damage during any ride is to look for unusual rust. If the car is newer and especially if it’s out of California where the roads aren’t salty in the winter, the undercarriage should be virtually corrosion free. Also, look out for rusted fasteners indoors such as under the dashboard as well as in the trunk and engine compartment.

Lastly, you hope that the title of the vehicle is marked up from flood damage, but when the title moves to a new state that may not be the case. Clever sellers may even know how to manipulate the system to “wash” the stock. You can check the vehicle history through a service, although we’ve shown that these aren’t always entirely accurate. Alternatively, you can use the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VINCheck service or the US Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

If you still suspect something about a car isn’t right, walk away from the deal. Some used car hucksters can be incredibly smart and know all of the above, so if things aren’t going well, it’s okay to trust your gut.

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