Today’s modern vehicles have electronics throughout; in the doors, under the seats, behind the dashboard, in the engine and even in the trunk. With so much electronics susceptible to flood-related failure, most cars that took on water cannot be repaired.

“It depends on how deep it is,” says Smith. “Certainly if it’s gotten up into the dash, for sure, the car should not be repaired. If it’s something like water in the floorboard and they haven’t driven it, it’s just rising water, the chances are you can fix it if you fix it right.

“But I’m going to give you a caveat: when water gets into a car, the carpet that you normally see in a car can be cleaned. It’s nylon. It doesn’t hold the moisture. You can put it outside in the sun and let it dry. But it’s what underneath—the padding, the jute if you will—that is like a sponge that holds the moisture. In short order, a couple of days, the odor will be horrific. So, your first clue on a flooded car after a few days is the smell.”

What happens to individual car owners’ vehicles? Once owners who have comprehensive insurance report that their cars have been flood damaged, the insurance companies will send adjusters out to inspect the cars on a first-come, first-served basis. If the adjuster declares the vehicle a total loss, it will be transferred to an auction facility managed by one of the two major salvage auctions, either Copart or Insurance Auto Auctions.

It’s the cars that did not have comprehensive coverage that consumers need to be on the lookout for. Because insurance companies and auction houses never see these vehicles, there won’t be any record of the vehicles’ having been flooded. Unscrupulous car owners will dry them out and repair them without reporting they were flooded. These are usually going to be older, paid-off cars since most banks require a comprehensive policy when writing a loan.

“One of the things that worries me an awful lot about cars, is under the seat on these GM cars there is a wire that runs from the tensioners on the seat belts,” says Smith. “Anytime you have an accident when a seatbelt is detonated, there is a signal to the tensioner in your seatbelt that tightens and locks that seatbelt so that when you go forward you don’t go that far forward. We replace those tensioners anytime airbags have been deployed. There is a connector under the seats that you plug in, and if a car has been underwater and someone doesn’t take the proper steps to protect and clean that connector, the chances are not whether it’s going to fail, it’s when.”

Flood-damaged vehicles typically are sold for scrap or recycling but can in some cases find their way into the market for sale to unsuspecting buyers. Buyers should demand to see the vehicle’s title. If an insurance company has been involved in paying for any repairs, it will have the title marked to indicate that is has been in a flood or even totaled. But there is a 40-day window for such a notification to take place.

While there is no sure way to know if a vehicle has been damaged by a flood, the National Automobile Dealers Association offers these tips to prospective buyers to spot flood-damaged vehicles:

  • Check a vehicle’s title history using the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VinCheck, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System or a commercially available vehicle history report service, such as Experian or Carfax, etc. Reports may state whether a vehicle has been flood damaged.
  • Examine the interior and the engine compartment for evidence of water and grit from suspected submersion.
  • Check for recently shampooed carpeting.
  • Look under the carpeting for water residue or stain marks from evaporated water not related to air-conditioning pan leaks.
  • Inspect for interior rust and under the carpeting, and inspect upholstery and door panels for evidence of fading.
  • Check under the dash for dried mud and residue, and note any mold or a musty odor in the upholstery, carpet or trunk.
  • Check for rust on screws in the console and in other areas water would normally not reach unless the vehicle was submerged.
  • Look for mud or grit in alternator crevices, behind wiring harnesses and around the small recesses of starter motors, power steering pumps and relays.
  • Inspect electrical wiring for rusted components, water residue or suspicious corrosion.
  • Inspect other components for rust or flaking metal not normally found in late-model vehicles.