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Hurricane Sandy brought historic flooding to the Northeast five weeks ago. The resulting property damage included thousands of flood-damaged cars. The BBB cautions consumers who will be in the market for a used car in the next couple of months to watch out for flood-damaged vehicles.
Cars that have incurred flood damage may be declared a total loss by the insurance company. In most states, “totaled” cars get a new title marked with the word "salvage" or "flood," but sometimes just a coded letter or number. These cars are then typically sold at auction to junkyards and vehicle rebuilders. According to experts at Carfax.com, flood cars are often cleaned up and then re-sold. Unscrupulous sellers may try to conceal that a car is a salvage, or may not adequately disclose facts about a car’s flood history.
Flood-damaged cars also get on the market through a practice known as “title washing.” Dishonest dealers will take flooded cars to a state that doesn't require flood labeling and get a new title. Auto theft brings cars that are unfit for the road on to the market as well. These damaged vehicles end up for sale in used car lots, classified ads or online bulletin boards, rebuilt and disguised as ordinary used cars with clean titles.
“After a thorough cleaning, new carpets and floor mats, these cars may look just as good as any other car on the surface,” said Claire Rosenzweig, President and CEO of BBB Serving Metropolitan New York. “But a car that has been exposed to flood waters can have serious hidden problems including mold and mildew, rusty wiring, computer malfunctions, airbags that don’t inflate and more.”
The BBB has 10 tips to help you spot these former 'submariner' vehicles, which are being sold as ‘good clean used cars’.
- Ask to see the title of a used car. Check the date and place of transfer to see if the car came from a flood-damaged state and if the title is stamped ‘salvage’.
- Check all gauges on the dashboard to make sure they are accurate, and look for signs of water damage.
- Test the equipment including lights, windshield wipers, turn signals, sound system, heater and air conditioner several times to make sure they work.
- Flex some wires under the dash to see if they bend or crack, since wet wires become brittle upon drying and can crack or fail at any time.
- Check the interior including the trunk, glove compartment, and beneath the seats and dash for signs of mud, rust or water damage.
- Look for discolored, faded or stained upholstery and carpeting. Carpeting that has been replaced may fit too loosely or may not match the interior color.
- Check for a well-defined line, or ‘watermark’, and for musty odors resulting from mildew.
- Check the car dealer’s BBB review to see if they have a history of complaints.
- Ask the dealer directly if the car has been damaged by floodwater.
- Get a vehicle history report based on its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). VINCheck (https://www.nicb.org/theft_and_fraud_awareness/vincheck) is a public service provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). With a VIN, consumers can determine if a vehicle has been reported as stolen, but not recovered, or has been reported as a salvage vehicle by cooperating NICB members.
Before buying any used car, always get a pre-purchase inspection by a trusted mechanic. The extra cost may save you money in the long run if major problems are discovered.
For more tips you can trust, visit www.newyork.bbb.org, and to sign up for our weekly scam alerts, visit https://cbbb.wufoo.com/forms/email-sign-up/.