Better Business Bureau’s Checklist for Avoiding Buying a Flood Damaged Automobile

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Flooding from recent storms, particularly Hurricane Ida, has caused damage in several states. It’s not just homes and businesses that may have been significantly affected – rising water levels can cause significant damage to vehicles as well. Cars damaged by flooding can be listed for sale at car auctions, used car companies, and classifieds. Unsuspecting consumers may not see the signs of the damage, which are likely masked by new upholstery, new carpets, and bargain prices.

After owners of damaged cars have settled with insurance companies, vehicles are sometimes refurbished and resold. In some cases, an intermediary buyer will purchase these vehicles with the intention of hiding a car’s history as a flood damaged vehicle through a process known as a “title wash”.

Among the many possible mechanical problems encountered by flooded cars, corrosion can take years to eventually surface, while it can cause electrical and mechanical problems. By the time the issues become apparent, the seller is likely gone and the new owner is left with an unreliable vehicle.

Your Better Business Bureau strongly recommends that used car buyers beware of unscrupulous companies and individuals who might try to sell a flood damaged car as a standard used car without revealing the vehicle’s history.

BBB also suggests the following checklist to help you look for signs that a vehicle has suffered flood damage:

Ask to see the title. Check the date and location of the transfer by checking where the car is coming from. If the title is stamped “salvage” or is from a condition recently damaged by flooding, ask questions. If the title displays a code rather than words for the status of the car, check what the code represents. Consider purchasing an automotive vehicle history report, which includes information on whether the car has ever been labeled as “salvage” or “flood damage” in any condition. Keep in mind that a vehicle’s flood history can take 30 days or more to be posted on reporting sites.

Finding the Dealer The Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission recommends that individuals purchase motor vehicles from an authorized motor vehicle dealer. Also, search BBB Business Reports for BBB ratings and customer experience histories on local resellers on BBB.org.

Get a vehicle history report from a database service. The National Insurance Crime Bureau’s (NICB) free database lists flood damage and other information. But take note: NICB reports are only useful if the car was insured. If the owner of an uninsured flood damaged car tries to sell it on the open market and you are the buyer, you may never know there is a problem until things happen. as the electrical system deteriorate. As mentioned earlier, also consider that it may take 30 days or more for an automobile’s flood history to appear on a report.

Check the dashboard carefully. Examine all gauges to make sure they are correct and that there is no sign of water. Look for indications that the dashboard may have been removed at some point.

Check the electronic components. Test the lights, wipers, turn signals, radio, heater, and air conditioning several times to make sure they are working. Also, carefully bend some wires under the dash to see if they bend or crack, as wet wires become brittle as they dry.

Check the interior spaces. Look in the trunk, glove box, and under the seats and dashboard for signs of mud, rust, or water damage. Check the open drainage holes in the bottom of the vehicle.

Check the condition of the fabrics. Look for discolored, discolored, or moldy upholstery and rugs. Recently washed rugs can be of concern. Carpet that has been replaced may be too loose or may not match the color of the interior.

Remember to check under the hood. Check for standing water, mud or grit in the spare tire housing or around the engine compartment under the hood.

Take an odor test. Strong aroma from cleaners and disinfectants is a sign that there may be a mold or odor problem.

Get inspected before you buy a used car. Before purchasing a used car, BBB strongly recommends that you have a pre-purchase inspection performed by a trusted mechanic.

BBB offers additional information, including advice on buying used cars, on bbb.org. BBB also offers listings of companies that are committed to meeting BBB accreditation standards on bbb.org.

You can also contact your BBB with questions or to check a company’s credibility at 423-266-6144.

Michele Mason is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.


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