Q. The recent flooding from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma damaged over half a million automobiles. I am in the used auto market, how do I protect myself from buying a flooded car?
A. That is a great question. Yes, between the two disasters, the number of destroyed automobiles will approach 1 million. These damaged automobiles are quickly starting to enter the marketplace. Individually, states are issuing warnings to consumers to be aware. The consumer affairs office and attorney general offices in Tennessee and Georgia are advising consumers who are buying used cars to be wary of vehicles that might have suffered flood damage as the result of recent hurricanes. Flood-damaged vehicles are often sold at auction and then are sold on used car lots. If prepared accurately, the vehicle's title will indicate "salvage" or "totaled," but sometimes dishonest dealers retitle the vehicle in another state and do not disclose the damage on the vehicle's title as required, a practice known as "title washing."
If a vehicle's body, engine, transmission or mechanical parts have been submerged in water, it will probably have electrical problems, and the brakes, airbags and computer system may be impaired. Unfortunately, this damage may not be readily apparent, especially to the average consumer.
There are several things that you can do to avoid buying a flood-damaged vehicle:
* Check the vehicle's history by going to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System(www.vehiclehistory.gov) and entering the vehicle identification number (VIN). This is the only database where all auto insurers, salvage pools that auction off totaled cars, junkyards, recyclers and self-insured entities such as rental car companies in all 50 states are required by law to report total loss vehicles within 30 days.
* Look at the title. Always ask to see the title of the car before you sign anything or hand over any money. Check to see whether the car has been branded as "flood," "junk," "salvage," "rebuilt" or "reconstructed."
* Look for signs of flood damage. A musty odor, water marks or faded fabrics may be a sign of flood damage. A strong detergent smell inside the car or in the engine may indicate that someone is trying to mask a mildew smell. Rust and metal flaking is another red flag. Check the upholstery, dashboard, glove compartment, trunk, inner doors, engine area, and under the seats and carpeting for mud or silt. Look for drainage holes beneath the car. Test and retest the ignition, lights, wipers, air conditioner, heater and all accessories.
* Get the car inspected by a mechanic. Have the vehicle thoroughly examined by an independent mechanic before you sign a contract or pay any money. If the dealer refuses to let you do that, go elsewhere.
Specifically, ask the dealer has the auto has been damaged by flood waters? Check the auto dealer's BBB Business Profile to review history of complaints and customer reviews.
* Report fraud. If you suspect a dealer or individual is knowingly selling a flood damaged car or a salvaged vehicle as a "good condition" used car, contact your auto insurance company, local law enforcement agency or report it to your local BBB. Be aware that advertising on Craigslist.com also is a forum for used autos. Also, report it to BBB Scam Tracker at bbb.org/scamtracker as this could help alert others to a rip-off and fraud. Visit bbb.org for other consumer and business tips.
Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.