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After a Hurricane, Beware Flooded Cars for Sale

If you're buying a used vehicle in an area recently hit by a hurricane, check to make sure it doesn't have any flood damage.

Question: I've heard that after a major flood consumers need to be careful not to buy cars with undisclosed flood damage. Are there any resources or advice on how to find out whether a used vehicle has storm damage?

Answer: Some great resources are available to help you avoid buying a flood-damaged car. And this is going to be a big issue starting in a few weeks, when cars that were flooded in Hurricane Harvey (and most likely Hurricane Irma) start making it onto the market. Within about a week of Hurricane Harvey, car owners submitted 170,000 storm-related insurance claims, says Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Many of those cars will eventually be declared a total loss by the insurers, and some of them will end up being sold to unsuspecting consumers. In fact, more than 325,000 cars flooded from Hurricane Katrina, superstorm Sandy and other major storms are still on the road, says Christopher Basso, a spokesman for CarFax Inc., a site that provides history reports on used vehicles.

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When cars are damaged by floods, the body can rust prematurely, wiring can become brittle, and the electrical and mechanical systems can break down. If there's enough damage, the insurance company will declare it a total loss and pay the claim for the value of the car. Cars that are declared to be a total loss are usually retitled with the department of motor vehicles, and the new title will disclose that the vehicle has been flood-damaged. In many cases, those cars are sold to companies that will dismantle them and resell usable parts. But sometimes people try to sell these cars without revealing the flood damage, which could create big risks for the buyers.

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Find out whether a car has serious storm damage by searching the National Insurance Crime Bureau's VINCheck database, which was developed after Hurricane Katrina. The database shows whether the VIN for the car was declared a total loss or salvage. (It also shows if it's an unrecovered stolen vehicle, which can be a separate problem.) CarFax's free Flood Check reports whether a car has a flood or salvage title from the state DMV, was declared a total loss by the insurance company, or was reported as flooded by repair shops.

These resources are very helpful, but not foolproof. Flooded vehicles won't show up in the databases if they weren't insured or had only liability coverage, not comprehensive. Also, sometimes crooks take the autos to another state, switch the VINs and retitle the cars, so the damage won't show up in a search.

If you're buying a used car—especially one that shows up in a few months and seems unusually cheap—it's a good idea to have a mechanic inspect the vehicle for some of the telltale signs of flood damage. These include, according to CarFax, rust inside the car and around the doors; upholstery or carpeting that is new, loose or doesn't match; mud or silt in the glove compartment or under the seats; and brittle wires around the dashboard.

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