Steering Clear of a Storm-Damaged Car, The Sequel
The FTC, the nation’s consumer protection agency, first warned consumers to be on the lookout for flood-damaged cars in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Almost a year later, news reports indicate that water-damaged cars that endured Hurricane Sandy are being sold by private sellers and showing up on used car lots.
AAA officials say nearly two-thirds of cars damaged in Hurricane Sandy are showing up in Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Illinois and Mississippi.
These polished-up cars may look great on the outside, but the damage lurking on the inside from being submerged in corrosive saltwater for days will only lead to problems down the road.
The corrosive and abrasive mixture of water, dirt and sand can work its way into every seam and crevice of a vehicle, and that can cause major damage. Experts say the most vulnerable parts of a car are the engine, transmission and drive train, along with the fuel, brake and power steering systems. Unless dirt and other contaminants are completely removed from these components, they can cause increased wear and breakdowns. Engine computers, sensors and other electronics are susceptible to corrosion.
If you’re shopping for a new ride, here’s how to spot a storm-damaged vehicle.
- Look for mineral deposits or discoloration on the seats, seatbelts or door panels; droplets of moisture on the inside of the instrument cluster, and warped or misshapen door panels, if they're made of fiberboard; silt or residue under the carpeting, in the wheel well where the spare is stored, or in the dashboard dials; or fogging inside the headlights or taillights.
- Do a smell test. Catch a musty smell or signs of mold or mildew? A heavy aroma of cleaners and disinfectants is a sign that someone's trying to mask a mold or odor problem.
- Get a vehicle history report. The current title is no guarantee that the car is clean. Flooded and salvaged cars can be re-registered in other states with clean titles, and then sold without disclosing the damage. That's called title washing. Your best bet is to use a service that will check the zip code where the car was last registered, and tell you if it was registered in a flooded area. Check a trusted database service that gathers information from state and local authorities, salvage yards and insurance companies for an independent and efficient review of a vehicle’s history. For example, the Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) is an online system that offers accurate information about a vehicle’s title, odometer data, and certain damage history. Expect to pay about $10 per report. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) maintains a free database that includes flood damage and other information so you can investigate a car’s history by its vehicle identification number (VIN).
Did you know there are different types of titles? Two that you need to know about are a “salvage title” and a “flood title.” A “salvage title” means the car was declared a total loss by an insurance company because of a serious accident or some other problems. A “flood title” means the car has damage from sitting in water deep enough to fill the engine compartment. The title status is part of a vehicle history report.
- Call in the pros. Have the car inspected by a mechanic you hire. Have your mechanic inspect the mechanical and electrical components, and systems that contain fluids, for water contamination. If you still want to buy the car, have your mechanic drain flood water from contaminated parts and systems, flush them with clean water or an appropriate solvent, and refill with them fresh fluids. Your mechanic also should inspect, clean, and dry electrical system components and connections. Spending a little time and money at the start can save you a great deal of frustration and money down the road.
- Report fraud. If you suspect a car dealer is committing fraud by knowingly selling a storm-damaged car or a salvaged vehicle as a good-condition used car, contact your auto insurance company, local law enforcement agency, or the NICB at (800) TEL-NICB (835-6422). You’ll help someone else avoid a rip-off.
If you have other questions about buying a car, these resources can help.