Hurricane and tornado seasons routinely damage large number of cars. Unfortunately, many of them-as-well as countless other water-damaged cars--make it to the used-car market, camouflaged as ordinary used cars. That's a problem because water damage can be hard to spot.
Immersing a car in water can ruin electronics, lubricants, and mechanical systems, for it can take months or years for the incipient corrosion to find its way to the car's vital electronics such as air-bag controllers.
A federally sponsored car-tracking database, or wreck registry", might help consumers avoid these damaged vehicles.
The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) helps consumers run background checks. It aims to crack down on the practice of “title washing,” where cars that have been totaled (or stolen) can get clean new titles in states with lax regulations.
Too often, when an insurance company decides a flood-damaged car is totaled, the information isn't clear to any future buyer. Once a car is totaled, it’s supposed to get a new title, called a salvage title. Those titles are usually either plainly marked (“branded” is the term used) with the word “salvage” or “flood.” In some states the warning is an obscure coded letter or number. Totaled cars are typically sold at a salvage auction to junkyards and vehicle rebuilders. Reselling is legal, as long as the flood damage is disclosed to buyers on the title, say experts at CarFax, a website that tracks vehicle histories and sells reports to consumers online.
But as Consumer Reports found in an investigation of "rebuilt wrecks", some flood-damaged vehicles magically reappear with clean titles. Be especially wary of any used car with a "lost" title.
For now, the NMVTIS is a work in progress. It will eventually gather information from every auto insurer, state motor-vehicle department, and junk or salvage yard, but so far only 13 states are fully complying, 14 are providing some data, 14 more are not participating, and 10 are moving toward compliance.
There have long been services that let consumers check a vehicle’s history by using the VIN. The biggest are CarFax, and Experian’s AutoCheck. CarFax charges $35 to check out one car, and Experian charges $30. CarFax says it gathers information from police agencies among other public record sources, which may be one reason it's costlier.
The NMVTIS website lists two information providers, AutoDataDirect, which charges $2.50 to run down information, and CArCO Group, Inc., which charges $2.25 for a summary and $3.50 for a more complete report.
You don't have to pay anything, as the National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free VIN-check service.
Note: Vehicle-history reports are NOT all-inclusive and are no guarantee that a vehicle is problem-free.