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Sandy-flooded cars: Buyer beware

A car sits in a flooded street near the ocean ahead of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012 in Atlantic City, N.J. If you're in the market for a car, we've got a list of tips to make sure you avoid buying one that's been flood damaged.

Hurricane Sandy flooded about 230,000 cars. But many of these marinated vehicles are back on the market, sold for scrap or to buyers who are looking for a deal. Some unscrupulous sellers are engaging in what’s called “title washing" or altering the car’s paperwork to disguise flood damage. Here's a primer on how to avoid buying a Hurricane Sandy Lemon.
 
Imagine, if you will, the following scenario:
 
Innocent buyer: “Is this the car?”
Shady Seller: “Yes it is. This is the car that got me through college. It’s a great car.”
Innocent buyer: “Are those plates from Jersey? I thought you said you were from Texas - so the car is from Jersey?”
Shady Seller: “Yeah, by way of Texas.”

"This is definitely a car to be suspicious of," says Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for auto website Edmunds.com. A car from the northeast that’s been moved, shortly after Sandy, is a big red flag.

One of many, he adds. "There are a number of other signs that will definitely trigger suspicion, and one would be headlights that had condensation on the inside. Headlights. Taillights."


Ten tips to avoid buying a flood-damaged car In the market to buy a used car? Here's some advice on how to avoid getting stuck with a Sandy lemon.


Then there’s smell. Nothing says hurricane damage like Eau D’mildew.

"Aside from odor, you can look at things like peel up the carpeting, " notes Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs at the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit group that fights insurance fraud. "In the trunk. Look at any place where water could have collected. If you see mud or dirt in there, that's a sign."
   
But experts say it's equally suspicious if there's no dirt under the hood. A little oil residue on the engine is normal. A shady seller may have steam cleaned the engine to hide any damage from salt water. A mechanic can determine if a someone went to that extreme.

The first thing you should do, says Reed, before you take a trip to look at a car, is run a vehicle history report from a site like Carfax. The site has a Mascot,  the “Car Fox,” who will tell you in a little cartoon bubble on the screen, if records of flood damage were removed. If it does raise red flags Reed says, don’t waste your time.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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