Look out for hidden water damage in used vehicles

Justin Stoltzfus

Water damage can be extremely destructive to vehicles. But unlike visible scratches and dents, it can be hard to detect. Those who are duped into buying water-damaged cars face safety risks as well as the frustratingly high repair bills that come from owning a car that can never truly be fixed.

Major storms can leave thousands of cars totaled because of the water damage they sustain -- and scammers see this as an opportunity to sell those cars to unsuspecting buyers. Dishonest auto dealers will buy damaged cars, clean them and sell them to buyers who think they're getting a good deal, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Even though some states require salvage titles to be issued for flood-damaged cars, fraudulent sellers can get around that. They may, for example, ship the car to a different state with more lenient laws and get a new, "clean" title for it, according to Allstate. This type of scam is called "title washing."

Once a car and its title are cleaned, the water damage may not be easy to detect -- but it can have some serious consequences. For example, according to Allstate, water-damaged cars may have:

  • Rust. It may take months before corrosion starts causing serious mechanical problems. By then, the seller will be long gone -- with your money.
  • Contaminated lubricants, like oil and transmission fluid.
  • Electrical damage.

Auto insurance does not cover repairs for these types of problems, according to Allstate. So you'll be on your own to fix or replace the car. Given the high stakes, those buying used cars should check for the following red flags:

  • Mismatched upholstery. Deceptive sellers may replace water-damaged seating to try to pass off a flooded car, according to Allstate.
  • Rust on screws and other metal fasteners, especially those that aren't readily visible. Any rust could indicate that the car has been in a flood, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
  • Brittle wires. Check the condition of wires under the hood. Water damage can leave wiring more brittle, according to Allstate.
  • Strange smells. The smell of mold or a strong smell of cleaning solution should raise suspicion, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
  • Debris. Look inside the trunk and around the engine compartment. These areas often accumulate small bits of debris during a flood, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau maintains a database that allows you to search by vehicle identification number (VIN). It tracks vehicles that have been stolen or reported as salvage vehicles, and it may tell you something about your vehicle that the seller failed to mention.

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