How to Avoid Getting Soaked by a Flood-Damaged Vehicle


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Buyer beware: Vehicles that look fine, but are actually at the end of the road from water damage, show up on used car lots across the country after floods.

The latest round of flooding is hitting Iowa and Wisconsin, even as Louisiana reels from massive rainstorms that inundated a huge swath of the state. Following the initial tragedy — the loss of life, dislocation of residents and loss of property — there inevitably comes another problem: flood-damaged cars and trucks, re-entering the market with cosmetic fixes that fool unsuspecting buyers.

These damaged vehicles quickly find their way to market — and not just those near the flooding. According to Autotrader, these vehicles end up all over the country:

Used-vehicle shoppers searching within a few hundred miles of the storm should be particularly wary, but it’s not just shoppers in the affected regions who should increase their vigilance. Savvy sellers will move damaged vehicles to unaffected states, where they will retitle the cars before foisting them on unsuspecting buyers.

If you learn the signs of flood damage — some are obvious and some are not at all — you can avoid being suckered into buying a vehicle that appears fine but is actually at the end of the road.

In a warning to consumers this spring the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which works with law enforcement agencies, insurance and car rental companies to assess damage, issued this word of warning in a press release:

“NICB agents see it time after time. Natural disasters bring out dishonest salvage dealers who don’t tell you that the vehicles they’re selling are heavily water-damaged,” said NICB President and CEO Joe Wehrle.

“Consumers need to know that these vehicles may appear advertised for sale without any indication that they were affected by the flooding. As always, buyers should be careful when considering a used vehicle purchase in the weeks and months following a disaster like this.”

To avoid purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle, the first thing you should do is have it examined by a trusted mechanic. (For tips on that, check out “13 Steps to Finding an Honest Auto Mechanic.”)

The next step is to order a VIN (vehicle identification number) check, according to DMV.org, a privately owned website not affiliated with any government entity.

Flood-damaged vehicles are supposed to be reported. If the vehicle you want is deemed flood-damaged, it should appear when you order a Vehicle History Report, also known as a VIN check or VIN report.

Another step is to check the status of the title, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

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.

There are also visible warning signs that could indicate the vehicle has been in a flood, says DMV.org, including:

  • New upholstery in a used vehicle that doesn’t match the carpeting.
  • Rust in places like door hinges and trunk latches.
  • Rust under the gas and brake pedals.
  • Silt or mud under the seats or in the glove compartment.
  • Wet floor carpeting.
  • A musty or moldy smell inside the vehicle.
  • Brittle wires underneath the dashboard, which could mean they have been wet and then dried out. Reach down there to make sure the wires are pliable.
  • Malfunctioning electronics or accessories. Turn on the ignition and make sure all dashboard warning and accessories work properly. Test the air conditioning, heater, windshield wipers, radio and turn signals several times.
  • VIN inconsistencies. Make sure the VIN on the dashboard matches the VIN on the door jamb.

Finally, if you see something fishy, say something.

“If a dealer fraudulently tries to sell you a flood-damaged car, they’re breaking the law: Report them,” says Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson.

If you suspect a dealer is 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 (800-835-6422). You’ll help someone else avoid a rip-off.

If you any other ideas on avoiding purchasing a water-damaged clunker, you can post them below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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