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How To Avoid Buying a Flood-Damaged Car

Hurricane Sandy, the storm that devastated coastal New Jersey and parts of Virginia, Maryland, New York and Connecticut, also flooded out thousands of cars. The major car insurers such as State Farm, Progressive and USAA have thus far reported about 38,000 Sandy-related auto damage claims. That’s a lot fewer than Katrina’s car damage toll – and many of these damaged cars were taken out of circulation and turned into scrap metal.

Still, some of them are going to find their way into the used car market – and that’s going to be a headache for people in the market for a pre-owned vehicle.

Damage to flooded-vehicles remains long after the flood waters recede. Sandy brought a huge storm surge of salt water. When the water dries out, the salt remains, and is tremendously corrosive to wiring, circuitry, computer systems and moving parts.

Where cars were written off as total losses, states generally required their owners to get brand new titles that documented these cars as flood damaged. This won’t be the case with cars with less damage that were repaired. Some will certainly be on the market.

Just because you aren’t in the Northeast doesn’t mean you don’t need to worry about flood-damaged vehicles, either. Car dealers routinely ship cars long distances, and people often move their own cars and sell them.

One idea – if you’re at a car dealer, and you find a car you like and are willing to buy, make your offer “contingent on a clean Carfax.” (There’s another competing service called AutoCheck, run by Experian, the credit bureau company, and that’s fine, too).

The Carfax costs the dealer a few dollars to run. They probably won’t be thrilled to do it, but chances are they’ll do it rather than blow a deal.

If you’re buying it from a private individual, you may not have that option. It may be worth it to get the VIN (vehicle identification number) and contact Carfax or AutoCheck and run it yourself.

Additional tips:

  • Be alert for the smell of mold and mildew. This could be a tell, if the vehicle was never reported as flooded. If the car was never reported flooded, it could still have damage, but it won’t show up on the Carfax.
  • Ask the seller if he ever does off-roading in the car. If he says ‘no,’ get under the car. Run your finger along the inner underside of the chassis, or on the top side of exposed axles. These areas are not readily accessible with a hose. If the vehicle was flooded out, you may find dried mud still on the top. This will be brown or reddish in color, where normal road soot is usually black or gray.
  • Does the car have several air fresheners in it? Chances are they’re there for a reason.
  • Look for rust – particularly in areas that are not normally immediately exposed to rain. Some damaged cars will have rust but only up to a foot or two. This is a sign of flood damage. Also look for signs of rust or mildew in the trunk, glove compartment and vehicle floors.
  • Check the oil. If the oily has a milky appearance, water may have penetrated the engine.
  • Does the carpeting match the interior? If not, it may have been replaced because of flooding.
  • Rust on and around screws may indicate flooding.
  • When in doubt, take the car to an experienced mechanic. The mechanic’s experience can help him determine if there is rust or corrosion beyond what one would expect in most cars that age. If you buy from a dealer, you may be able to make your purchase contingent on your own mechanics’ inspection within three days.

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