How to avoid buying hurricane-damaged cars


Whenever there is flooding, as there was recently when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, car buyers need to be aware that some dealers try to hide the fact that the vehicles they're selling have been damaged by water.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates that 230,000 vehicles were damaged as a result of Sandy. Many of the cars will be taken to facilities to be crushed. However, NICB President and CEO Joe Wehrle says that "there will be cases where damaged vehicles are cleaned up, dried out and sold by unscrupulous dealers or individuals who know how to beat the system." Water damage can lead to problems with a vehicle's computer and electrical systems and cause anti-lock brake and airbag systems to malfunction.

[Related: Where do the damaged cars from Hurricane Sandy go?]

NICB and CARFAX, which provides vehicle history reports, suggest that consumers be on the lookout for these signs that a car may have been flooded:

-Mildew, debris and silt in places where it wouldn't normally be found, such as under the carpeting in the trunk, or around the engine compartment

-Rust on screws and other metal parts

-Water stains or faded upholstery, discoloration of seat belts and door panels; upholstery that doesn't match may be a sign that it was replaced

-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 dealers use 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 because they were wet and became brittle upon drying

When buying a car, ask to see the title and look for a "salvage" or "flood" stamp. Also have a mechanic look for flood damage and check the car's VIN. You can search the NICB VINCheck database for free to find out if a vehicle has been reported as salvage by NICB members. And CARFAX is offering free Hurricane Sandy flood damage VIN checks. If you suspect that a dealer is selling flood-damaged cars, contact the NICB at 800-835-6422.