How to Know if You're Buying a Flood-Damaged Car

Hurricane Sandy unleashed her wrath on East Coast communities and people this week. Those of us in the rest of the country were lucky to escape the direct effects of this superstorm. However, cars damaged by Sandy’s storm surge could easily make their way into other areas.

Here are some tips from Car Talk hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi about how to know if a car you’re thinking of buying has flood damage:

  • Assuming no obvious signs are present, you might see mineral deposits or discoloration on the seats, seat belts or door panels. There might be droplets of moisture on the inside of the instrument cluster, warped or misshapen door panels (if they’re made of fiberboard) or an owner’s manual that looks like it fell into the bathtub. 
  • In the trunk or engine compartment, you might find things like mud, sticks or other debris. And inside, a heavy aroma of cleaners or Lysol is a telltale sign that someone’s trying to cover up a festering mold or odor problem. 
  • But most likely, if a “professional” is trying to pass off a flood-damaged car on the used-car market, he will have cleaned up all those things and perhaps even replaced the seats and the carpet. And it will be very difficult for the average buyer — or even the average mechanic — to have any idea that the car was flooded. 
  • Our best advice is to simply avoid used cars that have come from the flooded areas. How do you do that? The current title of the car provides no guarantee that the car is clean. Unfortunately, flooded and salvaged cars can be re-registered in other states with clean titles and then sold without disclosing the damage. That’s called title washing. 
  • Your best bet is to use a service that traces the vehicle identification number.
  • While it’s not absolutely perfect (it’s possible that someone with a car registered elsewhere could have driven to New York City and been there for the flooding), that’s about the best chance you have in spotting a potentially flooded car before you buy it.

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