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Nov 162012
 November 16, 2012  Posted by  Cars, Hot Deals, Money
How to avoid buying flood damaged cars

An estimated 300,000 vehicles were flooded or otherwise damaged by water in Superstorm Sandy.  Some of those could show up soon for sale online or at used car lots hundreds of miles away.

You don’t want one, no matter what the price. Flood-damaged cars are dangerous to drive.  A water-soaked transmission or engine can fail without warning. So can the electrical or computer mechanisms that govern safety systems such as airbags or anti-lock brakes.

Here’s how to avoid buying a flood-damaged vehicle:

Watch out for “title washing.” Insurance companies often declare flood-damaged vehicles a total loss, then resell them to auto salvage companies. Salvaged or flooded vehicles are required by law in many states to be identified as such, so unscrupulous sellers clean them up and ship them to states that do not require identifying flood-damaged vehicles on the title. That’s called “title washing.” Be especially wary of any vehicle whose title has been “lost” and any vehicle priced well under book value.

Get a vehicle history report. As I wrote on  ecoXplorer,  before buying any used car, get a vehicle history report from a service such as  Auto Data Direct has cut the cost of its vehicle history report from $5 to $2.50 through April 2013. Many used car dealers throw this in  free, and that’s a good sign both the dealer and the vehicle have nothing to hide.  You can also check the free National Insurance Crime Bureau VINCheck or the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers.

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Know the lemon laws. There a federal Lemon Law known as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty act, which provides compensation to those who buy defective cars, trucks, RVs motorcycles and other products including computers and appliances.  Also, the Federal Trade Commission requires used-car dealers to post a buyer’s guide on every used car, with details on warranty information.

Carefully inspect the car you’re considering. Here’s how to recognize a flood-damaged car by sight and smell:

  • Check the trunk, glove compartment, dashboard and below the seats for signs of water damage such as silt, mud or rust.  Use a flashlight to check under the dash for signs of rust on the heads of unpainted, exposed screws.
  • Examine upholstery and carpeting closely; if it doesn’t match the interior or fits loosely, it may have been replaced. Discolored, faded or stained materials could indicate water damage.  Look under the carpets for signs of dampness or mud.
  • Electronics, including computer chips, hate water.  Turn the ignition key and make sure accessory and warning lights and gauges turn on and work properly, including the lights for the airbag and ABS come on.  Test the interior and exterior lights, windshield wipers, turn signals, radio, heater and air conditioner several times to make sure they work.  Ditto the cigarette lighter or MP3 port.
  • Check headlights and tail lights for signs of water build-up.  This could include fogging inside headlamps or a telltale water line.  Also check for signs of a waterline on the exterior paint.
  • Flex some of the wires beneath the dashboard. Wet wires become brittle upon drying and may crack.
  • Take a deep breath and smell for musty odors from mildew. A strong perfume smell from an air freshener or cleaning solution could be covering up musky mildew.
  • Get the vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic you trust before you sign on the dotted line.

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Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn Kanter is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting on good deals and warning about bad ones, for longer than she cares to admit publicly. A native and lifelong New Yorker, she was the first consumer reporter for CBS News and for WABC TV “Eyewitness News” and helped launch the “Sales and Bargains” column in New York Magazine. Evelyn is the author or editor of more than a dozen travel guidebooks and apps, including Peaceful Places New York City, and owns and operates NYC On The Cheap and EcoXplorer. A long-time tree-hugger, Evelyn also writes about green travel, green cars and saving the green in your wallet for national and regional publications, including a column syndicated by Motor Matters and for, AAA magazines and airline inflights.

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