BOSTON - The office of Consumer Affairs said that in the coming months, vehicles damaged by flooding may hit the market, but the problem is that damage may not turn up with VIN (vehicle identification numbers) and title searches.
Industry experts are estimating around 500,000 to 1 million vehicles were damaged by Hurricane Harvey’s flooding. That number will only increase following Hurricane Irma.
The issue with unknowingly buying used cars is that the damage can easily be hidden, where the real problem lies in the mechanics of the vehicle.
If water gets into the electrical components, wiring, computer chips, etc., it could lead to corrosion and faulty or entirely broken sensors. If these components get damaged, it could severely impact the lights, air bags or brake pedal sensors.
John Paul, the "Car Doctor" at Triple-A says that he usually bets on reselling cars that come primarily from the south, due to their mild winters and because they tend to sustain less wear-and-tear.
In the wake of several storms, across Florida and Texas, experts estimate that anywhere from 500-thousand to a million cars suffered flood damage.
Paul says that, if you're in the market for a used car within the upcoming months, some of those vehicles damaged by the flooding may be heading to Massachusetts - and most people would never know.
"Those are scary cars, because you don't know what condition they're in," Paul said.
At any point in time, if you're looking to buy a pre-owned car, its imperative to check the history of the vehicle. You can either run its VIN through services like CarFax, Experian's Auto Check or the National Insurance Crime Bureau's VinCheck to see if its been reported as having being flooded or salvaged. Any vehicle deemed as a total loss by an insurance company should have a salvage title.
However, John Paul warns that sometimes checking the vehicle's history isn't enough because of the loopholes around the way in which pre-owned cars can be registered or insured before they are sold.
He said there are two factors that could fool you, one is a process called "title washing", where a car is re-registered for a short amount of time in a state that hasn't been hit by flooding. The second problem is uninsured, damaged cars that end up being fixed up and sold by unscrupulous dealers.
"And it'll still have a clear title because the car has never been declared a salvage or a total," Paul said.
If possible, the safest thing to do, if you can, is to have a qualified mechanic inspect the vehicle before signing anything. You can also look for signs of damage yourself by taking the car for a test drive and looking for signs of rust or brittle wiring.
When inspecting the vehicles, look for water damage stains on the interior fabrics of the car, including its rugs, upholstery, and seat belts. Check in the hard to reach areas for left over silt or mud.
The saying "cheap can be expensive" is very important to consider when buying a pre-owned car, or any vehicle, for that matter. It's always better to buy a vehicle from a licensed dealer rather than a private seller or from someone off Craigslist. Massachusetts requires dealers to diclose any and all details regarding the vehicle that may affect your decision to buy it.
For more information, visit the Mass Consumer Affairs blog or contact the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation by calling 617-973-8787, or toll-free in MA at 888-283-3757, Monday through Friday, from 9 am-4:30 pm.
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