Scam Alert. Unfortunately, many cars and trucks flooded in recent hurricanes will wind up for sale by unscrupulous dealers to unsuspecting customers. Here’s how to avoid getting soaked by buying a vehicle that is – simply – dangerous to drive.
Electronics, including computer chips, hate water. Since modern vehicles are heavy on electronics, water damage could short-circuit brakes, airbags, turn signals, headlights, speedometer, entertainment/navigation system, even the heating/cooling system.
Perhaps most dangerous of all, a flood-damaged engine, especially if it’s been soaked in salt water, could cut out at any time, causing an accident. Why risk it?
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Eyes – Look for water stains. Outside, that would be a water line on the exterior paint, or on the inside of headlights and tail lights. Inside, look for signs of rust on the seat rails and examine upholstery and carpeting. If upholstery doesn’t match the interior or doesn’t fit tightly, it may have been replaced. Check that the dashboard finish matches the door panels. Look under the carpets for signs of dampness or mud. You’ve had enough muddy shoes in your family car to know what is normal and what is not.
Ears – Check the seat belts. If there’s a grinding noise as you pull to attach, it could be from dried mud or dirt clogging the mechanism. Check the wires under the dashboard by flexing them. Wet wires become brittle when they dry, so listen for a cracking noise.
Nose – A musty smell is a dead giveaway. But the seller may have covered that up with air fresheners, so a strong perfume smell, including from cleaning solutions, is another giveaway. Either way, turn on the air vents to smell what comes out of the vehicle’s ventilation system.
Take a test drive – Use all your senses to look for telltale signs of damage. Does the engine turn over quickly and easily, or is it cranky? Does the steering wheel turn smoothly, or does it “stick” indicating mud or silt in the steering column? Ditto for the windshield wipers and power window controls. Does the airbag light go on? What about the radio? If it sounds muddy, maybe it was.
Check the title, VIN and vehicle history report
Title washing – Be especially wary of a vehicle whose title has been “lost”. It’s called “title washing”. Unscrupulous sellers may be hiding the fact that the car was declared a total loss by the insurance company, and perhaps sold as salvage to recoup some of that loss. These vehicles usually are moved far from the flooded area to further hide their history, so a vehicle damaged in Texas by Hurricane Harvey, for example, could wind up in North Dakota or New Hampshire.
You can look up a vehicle’s title history, including salvage history, for free, via the seven-digit vehicle identification number, or VIN. Check the National Insurance Crime Bureau VINCheck or the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, a joint effort of the US Dept of Justice and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers.
Many used car dealers give a free vehicle history report from services such as CarFax, a good sign the dealer and the vehicle have nothing to hide. If the seller doesn’t offer one, get it yourself. It’s more than worth the cost, usually around $30.
Check the VIN report carefully to be sure the vehicle color, upholstery and other features match the vehicle you are considering to buy. It is a felony to tamper with a VIN, but that won’t stop the most unscrupulous sellers.
You have legal protections, including the so-called federal Lemon Law (official name is the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act), which provides compensation for buying defective vehicles, including motorcycles and RVs. But getting your money back can be time consuming and even expensive if you have to hire an attorney, so it’s best to avoid a flood-soaked lemon in the first place.
It’s up to you to do your own due diligence, and the best way is to have your vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic you trust before you sign on the dotted line. If the seller refuses, walk away. Fast.
Note – ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter wrote this article for SheBuysCars.com after Hurricane Katrina, and it has been updated here.