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Storms and hurricanes have wreaked havoc on the United States over the past few weeks. It’s believed that an estimated 20-40,000 vehicles were damaged due to Hurricane Florence. That number will only increase following Hurricane Michael’s onslaught of the southeast. While many of these cars are damaged beyond repair, some flood damaged cars end up back in the used vehicle market.

While flood damage may be easy to hide, cosmetically, a real problem lies in water getting into the mechanics of the vehicle, such as electrical components, wiring, computer chips, etc, which could lead to corrosion and faulty or broken sensors. Damages to these components can impact the lights, air bags, or brake pedal sensors. If you are looking for a new vehicle, it is important you know how to look out for the warning signs of purchasing a flood-damaged car.

Check the vehicle’s history.

Cars that are deemed total losses by an insurance company, or cars belonging to consumers who don’t have comprehensive coverage, which typically covers flood damage, may get turned over to auctions or scrap yards.

It’s critical to check the title history of any pre-owned vehicle you’re considering by running its VIN (vehicle identification number) through services like CarFax, Experian’s Auto Check  or the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VinCheck to see if it’s been reported as having been flooded or salvaged. If the car was ruled a total loss by an insurance company, it should have a salvage title.

But consumers should be careful. Consumer Reports warns that while vehicles with salvage titles cannot be registered until necessary repairs are made and the vehicle is re-inspected by officials, sometimes cars with “rebuilt” titles appear instead with a clean title or a lost title.

A good reference service to use when checking a vehicles history is the National Motor Vehicle Titling Program (NMVTIS), which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Have the vehicle inspected.

If you can, have a qualified mechanic inspect the vehicle before signing anything. You can also look for signs of damage yourself. Take the car for a test drive and look and listen for signs of rust or brittle wiring. Test out all of the electrical and power components, such as the radio, power locks, windows, and sun roof.

Use your senses.

Close the windows and doors and run the air conditioning. If you detect a damp, mildew scent, be suspicious. Check for indications that cleaning agents or car fresheners are being used to mask the smell.

Look for water damage stains on the interior fabrics of the car, including its rugs, upholstery, and seat belts. Check in the hard to reach areas (in the spare tire compartment and under the hood) for left over silt or mud. A stain line on the inside of the door or engine compartment can also be an indication of how submerged the vehicle may have been.

Check for oxidation under the hood.  This form of corrosion manifests as a white powdery substance on metal surfaces.  If advanced enough, small holes can form, which is known as pitting.

Buy from a reputable dealer

While it may not always be the most cost-effective, consumers should consider purchasing a vehicle from a licensed dealer rather than a private seller or from someone on Craigslist. Massachusetts requires dealers to disclose any details about the vehicle that may affect your decision to buy it. If the dealer doesn’t know the vehicle sustained water damage and your purchase is still within the warranty period, you may have options under the Lemon Law.

If you have additional questions, contact the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation by calling our Consumer Hotline at (617) 973-8787, or toll-free in MA at (888) 283-3757, Monday through Friday, from 9 am-4:30 pm. Follow the Office on Facebook and Twitter, @Mass_Consumer. The Baker-Polito Administration’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation along with its five agencies work together to achieve two goals: to protect and empower consumers through advocacy and education, and to ensure a fair playing field for all Massachusetts businesses. The Office also oversees the state’s Lemon Laws, data breach reporting, Home Improvement Contractor Programs and the state’s Do Not Call Registry.

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