Buying a car with flood damage can lead to a host of issues. Here’s how to protect yourself

Consumer watchdogs are warning of flood-damaged cars for sale in the wake of recent severe storms. Kane In Your Corner has some advice on how you can avoid being taken for a ride.
Named storms like Henri and Ida brought unforgettable images of cars underwater or literally floating away. The bad news - some of those cars will soon be up for sale, if they're not already.
"This car was towed in, it doesn't run, it went through water," says mechanic Ed Paulmenn, who's worked on several flood-damaged cars this year. He says the damage can be costly to repair and may not show up until months later.
"Water that gets in the body of the car can sit in valleys and if there's wiring harnesses or switches or control units, they're liable to have any kind of a problem," Paulmenn says.
Cars with severe flood damage are allowed to be sold, but they should be branded as flood-damaged on the title. Depending on the state, that branding could take the form of the letter "F" or the word "Flood.” But cars will only be branded if they're totaled by the insurance company. If the previous owner didn't submit a claim, the title will give no clue to the potential damage.
Insurance industry sources also tell Kane In Your Corner that if a car is sold prior to the flood claim being processed, especially if it's sold multiple times and the title moves from one state to another, the flood branding may not follow it. They say consumers should be aware of the warning signs of flood-damaged vehicles.
Paulmenn says condensation on the inside of a windshield is one of the surest signs of water infiltration. He cautions it can be seen best early in the morning. Also, beware of carpeting that smells musty, or that reeks of too much air freshener. When possible, he recommends buyers have their mechanic do a pre-purchase inspection.
"If you get underneath the car, you might see debris that floated under there and got caught - sticks, branches, you might see mud," Paulmenn says. "If you've got mud all the way up underneath, that'll indicate that water got up there."
If you can do a more extensive inspection, Paulmenn recommends looking behind trim panels for mud, but he cautions that many sellers will not allow that.
A mechanic may also have the specialized equipment to spot things the buyer can't, like a "check engine" light that's been recently reset. This could indicate a recent repair or an attempt to conceal a problem.
Paulmenn also advises checking the vehicle history report for flood damage repairs, and simply for the car's geographical history. "If they're coming a great distance and especially if they're coming from a known area for flooding, I think you need to really, really be cautious," he says.