flooded car
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It's been less than a year since Hurricane Sandy, but many of the cars damaged in that storm, as well as other storm-damaged cars, have made their way back to the U.S. used car market, according to CarFax. They estimate that more than 212,000 flood-damaged cars are on the road in the U.S. today, and many of them are from the 250,000 cars damaged in Hurricane Sandy.

CarFax says that, historically, half of the cars damaged in floods are resold after being cleaned up. Flood damage can be relatively easy to conceal because it destroys vehicles from the inside out. By cleaning up the outside of a car, unscrupulous used car dealers can offer a car that looks clean and reliable, but is actually quite dangerous. The rot and corrosion caused by floodwater can damage mechanical, electrical and safety systems, and soft, wet interior materials are a haven for mold and bacteria.

However, there are ways to spot a flood-damaged car before it damages your wallet. Looking up the car’s VIN using a free service like CarFax’s flood damage check or the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VINCheck is always the first step toward determining whether or not it is flood-damaged.

You can also check the vehicle yourself. According to CarFax, signs that a vehicle has been damaged by floodwater include:

  • Discolored upholstery or carpeting
  • Mismatched or loosely-fitting upholstery or carpeting (They may have been hastily replaced.)
  • Faulty electrics, including malfunctioning exterior lights, dashboard lights, windshield wipers, turn signals, radio, 12V power outlet, heater and A/C
  • Faulty ABS or airbag systems (You can check the dashboard warning lights to see if these systems are operating.)
  • Brittle wires under the dashboard
  • A musty odor (This can indicate mildew.)
  • Mud, silt and rust under the seats and in the glove compartment and trunk

Flood-damaged cars are most likely to turn up in states affected by coastal and river flooding. CarFax says that two-thirds of flood-damaged cars on the road today are in just 10 states: Texas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana, Illinois, New York, Florida, Missouri and Virginia (listed from most flood-damaged cars to least). Used car buyers in those states should be especially wary of cars that exhibit any of the warning signs mentioned above, and all used car buyers should have a car inspected by a reputable mechanic before buying it.

Shopping for used car? Be sure to check out our pointers on test driving a used car. Compare used prices with this month’s best car deals for new cars. You can also skip negotiating with a dealer by using our Best Price Program. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.