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Avoid Buying Flood Damaged Autos

As many Americans remember, the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast in 2005 caused widespread flooding and devastated the homes, businesses, and lives of thousands. In addition, there were a tremendous number of vehicles that should have been considered a total loss due to flooding, but instead were dried out and offered for sale. According to the Insurance Information Institute, many of these vehicles have been purchased by dishonest auto dealers and sold with their flood damage history illegally hidden.

If you are in the market to purchase a used car for your business or organization, industry experts are strongly encouraging buyers to do research about the vehicle and have it thoroughly checked by a mechanic for signs of flood damage. With more than half a million vehicles sustaining flood damage from the hurricanes, be extra cautious when purchasing a used vehicle, so you can avoid becoming a victim of a flood scam and having to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on repairs.

The following are a few tips to help buyers avoid purchasing a water damaged vehicle:

  • Check the trunk, glove compartment, dashboard, and below the seats for water damage, such as silt, mud or rust on screws and other metal parts.
  • Examine the 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 as well.
  • Turn the ignition key and make sure that accessory and warning lights and gauges come on and work properly. Make sure the airbag and ABS lights come on.
  • Flex some of the wires beneath the dashboard. Wet wires will become brittle upon drying and may crack.
  • Take a deep breath and smell for musty odors from mildew. Or, smell for Lysol or another type of deodorizer that may have been used to cover up an odor problem.
  • Ask to see the title of the car. Check the date and place of transfer to see if the vehicle might have come from a state that recently experienced flooding. The title will only indicate flood damage if the previous auto insurance company officially declared the car to have been a total loss.
  • Ask to see a detailed vehicle history report, which can reveal many hidden problems from a vehicle’s past, including flood titles, and will indicate if a vehicle has been registered in at-risk areas during flood and hurricane seasons. If the seller or dealer does not offer a report, use the 17-digit Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) available on the dashboard to check the car’s history. Consumers can obtain a vehicle history report for a nominal fee from sources, such as Carfax, or Auto Check.
  • Have a certified mechanic inspect the vehicle before purchasing it. The mechanic should test everything electrical, including the lights, instrument gauges, windshield wipers, turn signals, cigarette lighter, radio, heater and air conditioning. Check for signs of water, grit or silt in the engine compartment, wires, vehicles’ fuse box, alternator, starter motor and power steering pump crevices. Always get vehicles checked before handing over any money.

National Insurance Crime Bureau Resources

Another source that buyers can use to determine if a vehicle or watercraft has experienced flood damage is by visiting the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) Web site . The NICB has compiled a database of vehicles and watercraft that were affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. The information in this database was gathered from a number of sources, including insurance companies, salvage yards, and state and local authorities. While a number of vehicles are listed on this site, there may be numerous others that were affected by the hurricanes and are not included in this database. The NICB is allowing buyers to check Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) and Hull Identification Numbers (HINs) free of charge to help determine whether a specific vehicle or watercraft was damaged by any of the hurricanes.

To search the NICB database, enter the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which can be found on the dashboard, driver’s side door jamb sticker, and title documents. Or, for watercrafts, enter the Hull Identification Number (HIN), which can be found on the right rear of the watercraft hull.

Be Cautious

While not every vehicle that has experienced flooding will clearly indicate damage, or be included in a database as mentioned above, a majority of vehicles will have some clear warning signals. If buyers remain cautious and follow the suggested guidelines to avoid purchasing a flood damaged vehicle, consumers could end up saving a great deal of time and money in repairing damages that were unbeknownst to them with they made the purchase.

Source: National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB)

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