The devastating floods from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida are expected to result in approximately 500,000 cars declared a total loss due to flood damage. A vehicle declared a total loss by insurance should be disclosed to any potential buyer as a salvage title due to flood damage. The problem is that many cars with a salvage title will be taken to other states and, through creative paperwork or contacts in the DMV, the salvage brand won't appear on the title after the car is transferred out of state. Another way that a flood vehicle can end up for sale without a salvage title is if the insurance company sells the vehicle directly without taking title, or if a car dealership sells a flooded car directly because it didn't have insurance for flooded cars.
What you can do
Buy a vehicle history report. A vehicle history report is a good place to start, but it is only that -- a start. You can still end up with a flood-damaged vehicle even if you get a Carfax or other vehicle history report. The information on vehicle history reports is generally accurate, but there are many negative vehicle events that are not be reported.
Do the sniff test. Sit in the car with the doors shut and take a big whiff. A vehicle that was saturated will smell like dirty gym socks or wet dog. Also, be wary if the car has a heavy smell of fragrance or chemicals. The fragrance or chemicals may be there to mask a moldy smell after flood damage.
Look for evidence. Check out the hood and trunk to see if there is any leaf debris or mud where you wouldn't expect it. You may also see a water line around the engine compartment or trunk. While in the trunk, lift up the carpet and look for mud, debris or excessive rust in the spare tire/tire jack as well. If there is mud or rust on the seat tracks, the car was most likely in a flood.
Get an inspection. Before buying any used car, make sure to get an inspection by a trusted mechanic. This costs typically about $100 - $150, but is well worth the price. If you don't already have a trusted mechanic, do a search for "prepurchase inspection" in your area.
What if you already bought the car?
If you discover that a vehicle you purchased has flood damage that was not disclosed and the seller won't make it right, it's time to talk to a lawyer who can protect your rights and help ensure that you don't have to live with a car that should have been titled as a salvage.