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.”
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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.