Flood-Damaged Vehicles — When Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S in 2005., it was one of the worst natural disasters in our history. Literally, thousands of vehicles were flooded. A little-known fact is that many of those cars that were severely damaged during natural disasters (or major accidents) are then shipped to other parts of the country in an attempt to launder the titles and sell them to unsuspecting consumers. Recently Hurricane Ida’s remnants created deadly havoc in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York  with massive flooding days after the system hit the Gulf Coast — some 1,000 miles away.

Dishonest sellers know how to register vehicles in different states in a way that omits the salvage title from showing up so that they can make more profit by marking up the vehicle sticker tag much higher than what it is really worth. Some of these cars and trucks end up unknowingly in the hands of honest dealers, who are unaware that the title has been laundered. “Title washing” occurs most frequently in states that have adjoining cities because the laws differ from one state to another giving the crooks an easy opportunity to launder the vehicle’s title. Once the title appears clean on a new registration document, more often than not the car is entered into the interstate auction tour where unknowing, honest used car dealers may purchase the salvage vehicles without ever knowing that an unscrupulous deal had taken place.

If you don’t want to be stuck with a vehicle that has been totaled or flooded then it is important to obtain a vehicle history report before considering the purchase of any used car. In addition to doing a thorough background check, it is recommended to have a mechanic (preferably one you know and trust) do a comprehensive check. A mechanic can visually inspect a used car for any obvious signs of a collision such as frame damage, they can also check for fluid leaks or corrosion, but they cannot detect the subtle signs of a flooded vehicle, or that the title reports the car was stolen or passed through a salvage auction. The history report on a vehicle can tell you exactly how many previous owners the car had and disclose any police reports on the car.

Car buyers should beware of any deals that seem too good to be true. If you are offered a vehicle for what appears to be a very low price, you can check several areas on the vehicle to see if it may be flood damaged. Some things you can look for while inspecting the vehicle.  Water stains, mold, mud or sand under the carpets, seats, floor mats. Musty odors in the trunk and passenger compartment, especially when running the air conditioning or heat. Mud or grit in the spare tire compartment and under the hood. Oil or transmission fluid that is milky.

A Car-Fax or AutoCheck report is like doing a background check on a vehicle, it not only gives the history of the car’s past owners and verifies the VIN, some of the most valuable information is located in the past accident report section. When a vehicle is involved in a major accident, a police report is filed and if repairs to that vehicle exceed $500, that information is required by law to be entered into the police report. These reports will disclose any damage the vehicle has acquired as a percentage. If an automobile has 75% or more damage, it is considered totaled and, in most cases, will have a “salvage title.” In some states, however, a vehicle can sustain over 75% (up to 90%) damage and still have a clear title, so this section of the report is really invaluable for purchasing used vehicles anywhere in the U.S.

According to a new report by Carfax, the used car research firm, Flood-Damaged Vehicles on the market have already jumped 20 percent in recent years, not including the influx of flood-damaged vehicles expected to be sold from the most recent storms. Whether those vehicles will be scrapped or repaired and resold remains to be seen, but with potentially hundreds of thousands of flood damaged vehicles being reintroduced to the market, it’s important that used car buyers know how to avoid buying a severely damaged vehicle. Doing your homework before plunking down your hard-earned cash will be more important than ever in the next few years. Spend the money on a vehicle history report and take it to a trusted mechanic for a thorough inspection, If the seller won’t allow that, consider it to be a deal-breaker. Move on and look for a vehicle elsewhere. you will thank me later.

Related: Avoiding Online Car Buying Scams

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