If there's one thing we can count on after a devastating super storm, it's that the used-car market is flooded with water-damaged cars. If a used-car deal looks too good to be true, you should do more than kick the tires.
An estimated 40,000 vehicles were damaged by flooding after Hurricane Florence on the east coast and disasters in other parts of the country add to this inventory of flood-damaged cars. Now with Hurricane Michael approaching the Florida coast, these numbers are sure to soar.
Learn what to look for and how these cars just might make it to your neighborhood.
I don’t live in the Carolinas or Florida, I’m safe - right? Wrong!
Flood-damaged cars can be found in two ways: auto auctions and disreputable sellers. Many of these cars are found several states away from the location where the damage took place.
Used-vehicle shoppers searching within a few hundred miles of the storm should be especially cautious, 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 re-title the cars before selling them off to unsuspecting buyers.
Is it illegal to sell a flood damaged car?
It's not illegal to sell flood-damaged vehicles, but sellers may try to hide the fact that the car was damaged by water.
If the owner had comprehensive coverage and the insurance company declared the vehicle a total loss, which means repairs cost more than the car is worth, the car is often given a salvage title.
As long as sellers disclose that the car has a salvage title, the sale is legal.
However, there are always people looking to make a quick buck. Some sellers may dry out and clean a flooded car without disclosing the damage. Others may manipulate the car’s title—called title washing.
Title washing involves selling the car in another state that has more lenient title laws.
Be on the lookout for these issues.
Flood damage can ruin a vehicle in any number of ways. It may eat away the electronics wiring to seizing up mechanical systems. And worst of all, the damage may not be visible for months or even years.
Although you cannot peek into every nook and cranny, there are some areas where obvious signs of damage lurk. Here are a few places to inspect and what to look for:
- Mud and debris collect in hard-to-clean spaces, such as under the hood and in the trunk.
- Rust on the heads of any exposed screws under the hood, around the doors or in the trunk indicates exposure to excess moisture.
- Mud and debris on the underside of panels and brackets is another good sign the car has been under water.
- A visible water line on the headlights and taillights (look inside the lenses).
- A water line around the engine or excessive rust under the hood.
- Dampness in the floor and carpeting; moisture on the inside of the instrument panel.
- A moldy odor or an intense smell of Lysol or deodorizer, which was used to cover an odor problem.
- Warning lights and gauges that don't work properly, as well as exterior lights that don't come on.
- Wires that crack when you flex them. This is a sign they were wet and became brittle upon drying
CarFax recently rolled out a free flood-check tool www.carfax.com/flood. To use it, you’ll need the VIN of the vehicle. If you don’t uncover a history of flood damage but are still suspicious, the smart move is to just walk away.
If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. The alternative is to spring for the cost of having a mechanic give it the once over.
There are some precautions a used-car shopper can take to minimize, if not eliminate, the chances of buying one of these future rust buckets. Avoiding a flood-damaged vehicle ultimately falls on the used-car shopper, and the most effective way to avoid being scammed is being alert to the danger and look for a few telltale signs.
Carefully inspecting any used vehicle is the most effective prescription for dodging one with terminal water damage. This is best accomplished by a qualified mechanic. However, if a mechanic isn't available or you want to avoid the expense of a professional, with these tips you will be able to identify a problem vehicle yourself with a preemptive inspection.
Buying a used car is a big investment. A little vigilance up front about flood-damaged vehicles can save you from a big headache down the road.
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