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Thousands of cars damaged every year

When a vehicle has been badly damaged in a hurricane or flood, insurance companies will often categorize the car as a total loss, assign it a “salvage title” and sell it to a junkyard or vehicle rebuilder.

A car with a salvage title can’t be driven on public roads in most states. However, rebuilders can repair the cars and have the vehicle reinspected to qualify for a rebuilt title. Then they can be legally driven and resold.

But sometimes, owners won’t report the damage; maybe because they didn’t have the appropriate auto insurance coverage and couldn’t make a claim. Then the damage won’t show up on the vehicle’s title, and the owner may try to pass off their soppy jalopy to unsuspecting buyers.

Even if the damage is reported, less scrupulous dealers will resell fixed-up cars under a new title in states that have more relaxed title laws.

Thousands of cars are damaged or destroyed by floods every year, Consumer Reports says, and many of them are transported to different states to be resold to drivers who don’t recognize the signs of a water-damaged vehicle.

Recently, Carfax estimated estimated that in addition to the 358,000 vehicles damaged by Ian, more than 378,000 flooded cars were back in use nationwide — with Texas and Florida alone accounting for over a quarter of them.

More: Are you overpaying for car insurance?

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Signs of flooding to watch out for

A car once classified as a salvage vehicle will probably come at a low price, but water can really trash a car’s mechanical, electrical and safety systems.

Even if the vehicle is roadworthy now, damage from flooding can take months or years to reach a car’s internal systems — and even then it can be difficult for the untrained eye to spot. And interior contamination of bacteria and mold can make an unsafe environment for your family.

Consumer Reports says there are some telltale signs a car has been submerged in water. It suggests you inspect:

  • The carpeting. Is it muddy or musty? Alternatively, is it suspiciously new in an old car? Does it match the brand of the car?
  • Exposed screws. Check both the seat-mounting screws to see whether the seats have been removed to help dry the carpeting and check any other exposed screws for signs of rust.
  • Difficult-to-clean places. Inspect all the nooks and crannies like gaps in panels in the trunk or hood or on the bottom edges of brackets and panels for signs of mud or debris.
  • The lights. Flooding can leave a visible waterline on a car’s lens or refractor.

Do your due diligence

Since it may not be obvious a car has been damaged by floodwaters, or shady sellers may have “washed” a title by making undisclosed repairs, it’s up to buyers to protect themselves.

Fortunately, there are a few resources to help uncover a car’s history.

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System helps consumers run background checks on cars. And the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s free service, VINCheck, allows drivers to check whether a car has been reported as a salvage vehicle by a participating insurance company.

But since some damage is never reported, these systems aren’t foolproof. A buyer’s best protection is to have a professional mechanic run a detailed inspection on any suspect vehicle.

Instead of buying from a private seller, consider working with a trusted company that thoroughly inspects its cars so you can be confident you’re buying a safe pre-owned vehicle.

More: Ditch the car dealership and buy online with Carvana


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Sigrid Forberg Associate Editor

Sigrid’s is Moneywise.com's associate editor, and she has also worked as a reporter and staff writer on the Moneywise team.


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