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Car Buyers: How to Spot Flood Victims

Flood waters from Hurricane Irene and other big storms have been swamping cars as well as homes -- which means buyers will need to be wary in coming months to avoid used cars that have been flooded.

Flooding can harm a car's electronic, mechanical or other systems, with potentially dire consequences -- like disabled air bags. But once the car has been cleaned up, much of this damage is not obvious in a cursory inspection. And used-car sellers often ship reconditioned cars to other states to sell them to unsuspecting buyers, as happened after Hurricane Katrina.

Many states, but not all, require any car that has been flooded to have that fact stamped on its title to warn future buyers. Some states tag the title of any car than has been submerged in water, while others only do it if an insurance company has paid a total-loss flooding claim. To see what the title rules are in your state, check this list from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

Wholesalers often will take flooded cars to a state without any flood labeling requirement and get a new title, a practice known as "title washing." To make sure you don't fall victim to such a scam, here's how used car buyers can protect themselves.

Check government and non-commercial sources: The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, overseen by the U.S. Justice Department, collects data from all states about vehicles that have been declared a total loss or had their titles "branded" otherwise, including for flooding. It costs $2.99 for each vehicle that you check. The National Insurance Crime Bureau provides a free check by Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), based on data provided by its member insurance companies.

Check commercial vehicle history services: Even if no problems show up in those databases, you can check with CarFax or its chief competitor, AutoCheck, both of which get reports from insurers, police departments and other sources on accidents and disasters, including flooding. Consumer Reports suggests checking both commercial and non-commercial sources, since it has found that one of them can pick up a problem where all the others missed it.

If you are considering a car from a dealership, its sales people may be able to show you these reports for the cars you are looking at. (If they don't want to, that could be a warning sign.) Otherwise, it costs $34.99 from CarFax and $29.99 from AutoCheck for a single vehicle report, and $44.99 at both for multiple reports.

Do your own spot check: In addition to checking a car's history, here are some physical warning signs cited by Consumer Reports that a car might have been flooded. Check them when you are looking at the car:

  • Lift up an edge of floor carpeting to see if it is wet or muddy.
  • Check for hard-to-clean spots in the trunk and under the hood to see if small pieces of mud or debris might be clinging there
  • Inspect the headlights. If they have not been replaced, they might still show a water line.
  • Look at any exposed screws under the dashboard for signs of rust.
If you unwittingly buy a car that has been flooded, you could face future costly repairs and even safety problems. Thus you could become a hurricane victim even if you live nowhere near the flood zone.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ChefMattRock
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