In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, used car buyers across the country should be on high alert for deals that seem “too good to be true.”

According to Carfax Public Relations Manager Christopher Basso, almost half of flood-damaged vehicles return to the road in one form or another.

Considering that flood damage caused by both storms impacted an estimated one million vehicles, consumers looking for a great deal on a used car have a right to be more than a little concerned that a potentially dangerous number of compromised vehicles is about to hit the market.

Back on the road

There are two ways a flood-damaged vehicle gets back on the road.

“If a car wasn't insured or it didn't have comprehensive coverage, the owner won't have any money coming to them from the insurance company, and they may turn around and try to sell the car before anyone is the wiser,” Basso said.

These cars slip back into circulation because they are essentially undocumented. Online auto history databases may not be aware of them, and not going through an insurance claim means their title isn't designated as salvaged.

Other vehicles make it back onto car lots and into buyer's driveways when insurance companies sell branded vehicles to auto auctions and dealerships.

“A person who has a rebuilder's license can go in and buy these damaged cars, fix them up and then file for a salvaged title,” Chris Smith, owner of Smith Transmission based in Athens, Alabama, said.

The word “salvaged” is branded onto the vehicle's title and is supposed to be noted along with the vehicle identification number on the inside of the vehicle's door.

As long as both parties know that a vehicle has suffered flood damage, the sale is completely legal.

“The problem arises when unscrupulous dealers go through a process of 'title washing,' where they remove the branding by manipulating the system by either forging the document or by other electronic means,” Basso said. “Then they move the vehicle to another state, where they present the Department of Motor Vehicles with a clean title.”

The devil is in the details

Basso said that as of last year, there were 5,000 flood-damaged vehicles on Alabama's roads.

With Texas, Florida and additional parts of at least four other states affected by recent hurricanes, storm-tested vehicles with flood damage could easily be on roads across the Southeastern United States.

“Given the proximity of where the last two storms hit, there is a good chance a whole lot more of these vehicles are going to end up in Alabama,” he said.

All the more reason for potential car buyers to have a vehicle inspected by a licensed mechanic before signing on the dotted line.

But for those who choose not to enlist the help of a mechanic, there are telltale signs the buyer can look for:

• Mud or rust under carpets and rugs, including those in the trunk

• The smell of rust or mildew after the car has been left to sit for about four hours with the windows rolled up

• Rust on the heads of exposed screws, under the hood, on doors or on seat belts

• A “too good to be true” price

• Water lines and signs of salt debris or salt in trunk and engine compartment

• Dried mud and residue under the dashboard of the vehicle

• Issues with the electronic systems during a test drive

Do your homework and proper research

Buyers should do their homework before purchasing a vehicle. This includes checking the car's title to see where it's from and taking extra caution when purchasing a vehicle from an area affected by hurricanes or flooding.

Potential buyers can also check the vehicle identification number online at an auto history website like AutoCheck or Carfax. Currently, buyers can check if a vehicle has flood damage for free at carfax.com/flood.

Buyers should also ask the seller relevant questions, such as, "Has this vehicle been through a flood?" and get the answer in writing. If a seller refuses, a potential buyer should walk away from the sale. If purchasing from a dealer, make sure they are a reputable dealer who is well-established in the community.

Even if a seller fully discloses a vehicle's history, Smith recommends that buyers stay away from flood damaged cars and trucks. Smith said today's cars may contain modules that can be instantly damaged by water. Vehicles may also suffer damage to the engine from water getting into the fluids, as well as the presence of mold, premature rusting and damage to the vehicle's drive train.

“There are just too many variables,” he said.

Hernandez writes for the Athens, Alabama News Courier

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