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Beware: Flooded cars may be coming to dealers near you

Due to Hurricane Laura and several other major storm events, flooding has damaged many cars. Unfortunately, some of those cars will come back into the stream of commerce. Sometimes, unscrupulous people repair flooded cars that should be totaled out. They then resell these cars in other parts of the country without telling the new buyers.

That's why you should always be vigilant when buying a vehicle after a big storm, even if you don't live near the flooded area.

If you end up buying a flooded car, you are in for trouble. Water destroys cars' mechanical and electrical systems and washes away crucial lubricants. It can interfere with the working of many of your car's systems, including safety technology like airbags.

This is true even if the car seems acceptable and is working when you buy it. The damage from water, such as corrosion, can affect your car even after significant time has passed.

It is sometimes legal to sell flooded cars

If a vehicle gets declared a total loss, it is supposed to receive a new "salvage title." These titles are often clearly labeled with the word "salvage" or "flood." However, in some states the label may be less obvious, showing as a letter or number code.

Once a vehicle with a salvage title gets fully repaired, officials reinspect it and give it a new "rebuilt" title. This allows the vehicle to be resold on the consumer market, but it doesn't guarantee that you won't have problems with flood damage.

Before you buy a vehicle, you should ask to see the title and ask questions about anything you don't understand.

Telltale signs of a flood-damaged car

Your best bet for avoiding a flood-damaged car is to get a detailed inspection by a mechanic before you agree to buy.

Here are some tips from Consumer Reports on how to spot a flood-damaged vehicle:

Look at the carpets. They may show signs of water damage -- or new ones may have been installed on a used vehicle.

Inspect the lights. These sometimes show a visible water line on the reflector or lens.

Check any unpainted, exposed screws. These and other bare metal may have signs of rust.

Look under the bottom edges of panels and brackets for grime that wouldn't ordinarily settle there.

Find difficult-to-clean areas and check for mud and debris.

Check the seat-mounting screws for signs of removal. The seats are sometimes removed in order to dry the carpets.

Driving a flood-damaged vehicle can be dangerous. Most of these cars shouldn't be on the road, so keep an eye out and buyer beware.

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