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Beware the flood of flood cars

Last updated: February 2013

Photo: Dennis K. Johnson

To people living outside the northeastern U.S., Superstorm Sandy is probably a distant memory that elicits a pang of sympathy. But if you’re in the market for a used car, the effects of the storm could hit you in the wallet no matter where you live.

That’s because countless vehicles with water damage from the storm are expected to find their way to the used-car market and be offered as ordinary cars rather than the flood victims they are.

That’s troublesome, because water can ruin a car’s electronics, lubricants, and mechanical systems. And it can take months or years for the incipient corrosion to find its way to the car’s vital electronics, such as the air-bag controllers. Tracking down and repairing those gremlins can be a time-consuming, costly process, and in the end you might never find or fix them all.

The problem is that flood cars are often transported out of the affected region, where  unsuspecting buyers might be less suspicious. And too often, it isn’t clear to a buyer that an insurance company has designated a flood-damaged car as totaled. Once that happens, it’s supposed to get a new designation, called a salvage title. Those are usually plainly marked with the word “salvage” or “flood.” But in some states the warning is simply an obscure code of letters or numbers that many buyers won’t question.

Totaled cars are usually 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 online reports. But some flood-damaged vehicles magically reappear with clean, or “washed,” titles. Be especially wary of any used car for which the title has been “lost.”

Getting a vehicle-history report before you buy can help flag some problems. They’re available from AutoCheck and CarFax for a fee. Or you can get a free one from the  National Insurance Crime Bureau. Go to nicb.org and click on “VINCheck” under the Theft and Fraud Awareness tab.

The federal government also sponsors a car-tracking database called the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, with reports available through private providers (prices vary). Go to vehiclehistory.gov.

Keep in mind that vehicle-history reports are not all-inclusive and are no guarantee that a vehicle is problem-free. That’s why it’s important to have any used car inspected by a trusted, independent mechanic before you buy it. That can run about $100.

How to spot a flood-damaged car

Water damage can be hard to detect, but there are some telltale signs you should be aware of:

  • Soiled carpets. Inspect them for signs of mud or dampness, or for a moldy smell.
  • New seat-mounting screws. That could indicate that seats were removed to dry the carpets.
  • Foggy headlights. Look for a water line or moisture on the lens or the reflector. Lights are expensive to replace, so they might be damaged.
  • Trapped and hidden mud. Inspect difficult to-clean places, such as gaps between panels in the trunk and under the hood, for debris still lodged there.
  • Engine-bay crud. Pop the hood and look for a waterline on the sides and back of the engine. Areas that are hard to access are less likely to have been cleaned.
  • Rusty surfaces. Look at the heads of any unpainted exposed screws under the dashboard.
  • Missing drain plugs. Check under the car and on the bottom of doors to see whether they are new or missing. They may have been removed to drain floodwater.

If you’re from an area affected by a flood and have a car that wasn’t damaged, be aware that buyers might suspect it was. Consider having a mechanic inspect your car before you put it up for sale so that you can present potential buyers with a clean bill of health.

   

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