CONSUMER FORUM

Don’t plunge into buying a vehicle without a careful check for water damage

Posted Aug. 17, 2014, at 12:17 p.m.

If you’re offered a deal on a used vehicle that seems too good to be true, pull out the seat belts.

The portion of the belt that’s been retracted inside the seat may contain some surprises: muddy spots, mildew or other clues that the vehicle has spent some time immersed in water. Flood-damaged vehicles may contain a number of other surprises, none of them pleasant.

Last week’s heavy rains brought new warnings from consumer advocates and auto clubs about vehicles’ lives after the storm. Insurance companies will often “total” storm-damaged vehicles, then sell them to salvage companies.

Instead of being dismantled for parts, some of those vehicles may be resold to people who, in the words of an official from AAA, “bring varying levels of expertise to the restoration process.”

Those with lesser abilities may miss a few things, such as water rings that form on the engine block or radiator … mud and dirt under the dashboard (a tough place to clean) … and corrosion, rust or flaking metal on the undercarriage (a tip-off if the car is supposed to be new or “from a Southern state”).

Newer cars contain one or more computers, which are noted for running poorly (if at all) after a drenching. Water can make its way to the cylinders — through the exhaust system or air intakes — and resulting rust could mean lots of burned oil. If water gets into the transmission fluid via the dipstick tube, that transmission could soon be cooked.

If you’re suspicious, first trust your sense of smell. Wet carpets and seats will likely mildew, and the odor will be a tip-off. Look also for dew or droplets inside interior and exterior lights and dashboard instruments. Feel wiring under the dash and in the engine for unusual stiffness, and look for water stains or mineral deposits everywhere. Use a mirror to check under seats for rusty springs.

In March 2013, Eric Cioppa, Maine’s superintendent of insurance, warned consumers and businesses that roughly 250,000 vehicles were damaged in Hurricane Sandy. That figure reflected only insured vehicles; owners who dodge mandatory insurance laws may not be fussy about disclosing damage to a machine they’re trying to unload.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners says most states require that titles indicate when a car or truck has sustained flood damage. However, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners says some wholesalers re-register vehicles in other states to avoid having damage noted and the value of the vehicles lessened. This process is called “title washing.”

Damaged cars registered in Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico and Utah may carry a “salvage title” with no indication that they’ve been flooded.

Dealers we’ve talked with locally say they have no worries about wholesalers in Maine being less than up-front about disclosing water damage. But they advise consumers to think carefully about private sales and investigate as fully as possible the history of vehicles before buying.

You can get a vehicle history for a fee from Carfax ( www.carfax.com), Auto Check ( www.autocheck.com) and Consumer Guide ( www.auto.consumerguide.com).

The homepage of the National Insurance Crime Bureau website ( https://www.ncib.org), VINCheck lets you check a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to see if a vehicle has been reported as salvage by its member insurance companies.

For more information on titles and title searches, including applicable fees, contact Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles at 624-9000 or visit www.maine.gov/sos/bmv.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

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