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Personal finance reference guide

Ten tips to avoid buying a flood-damaged car

Sally Herships Jan 16, 2013

More than 200,000 cars were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. But not all of them were abandoned. Some were sold for scrap, some to buyers looking for a bargain and some, well, they ended up in the hands of dishonest sellers hoping to make a bundle. How can you avoid getting stuck with a Sandy lemon? Check out the following tips:

1. Take a deep whiff. How does the car smell? Flooded vehicles often retain a musty, dank odor — Eau d’Hurricane.

2. Peel up the carpeting in the trunk, look in the spare tire well, the housing for head and tail lights — look any place water could have collected. If you see mud or a dirt, that can be a sign of flood damage.

3. Be sure to compare paperwork any seller shows you against information on file with a company like Carfax. This is your chance to catch a title that’s been “title washed,” where damage from the storm has been removed from a car’s title, either by criminal means or through overly loose state regulations. You can check a car for flood damage for free, here: http://flood.carfax.com (Credit: Frank Scafidi, The National Insurance Crime Bureau)

4. Look under the floorboard carpet for water residue or stain marks from evaporated water not related to air-conditioning pan leaks. (Credit: National Automobile Dealers Association)

5. Check for rust on screws in the console or other areas where the water would normally not reach unless submerged. (Credit: National Automobile Dealers Association)

6. Examine upholstery and carpeting closely; if it doesn’t match the interior or fits loosely, it may have been replaced. Discolored, faded or stained materials could indicate water damage. (Credit: Carfax.com)

7. Consumers can also check with NMVTIS, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, to find out if their car has a junk or salvage (including total loss) history.

8. Flex some of the wires beneath the dashboard. Wet wires will become brittle upon drying and may crack. (Credit: Carfax.com)

9. Get the car looked at by a mechanic or someone else similarly knowledgeable.

10. Many used car dealers have subscriptions to services such as Carfax. Save a dime and ask your dealer for a copy of the report. (Credit: Philip Reed, Edmunds.com)

For more about how to avoid buying a flood-damaged cars, tune into Marketplace Money this weekend.

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