Beware of hurricane, flood damage when buying a used car, advises expert

In our last issue, just as retired Tempe property-damage adjuster Mark Moorehead noted the potential for ripple effects from hurricane damage to people living far away, area auto insurance agents also have expressed concerns that the aftermath of flooding in Texas and Florida can sneak into the lives of Valley car buyers in unexpected ways.

In our last issue, just as retired Tempe property-damage adjuster Mark Moorehead noted the potential for ripple effects from hurricane damage to people living far away, area auto insurance agents also have expressed concerns that the aftermath of flooding in Texas and Florida can sneak into the lives of Valley car buyers in unexpected ways.

A new, widely distributed advisory, which appeared in the Sept. 22 edition of The New York Times, focused on the problem of water-damaged vehicles possibly being sold in distant locales without buyers being aware that they were reassigned with salvage titles in their home state before being shipped elsewhere.

Mary Contreras, a longtime Tempe and West Chandler State Farm agent, has joined others in supporting a number of the precautions contained in The Times article and recommending that vehicle buyers be wary of a private seller they don’t know or a company whose reputation might be questionable.

Contreras, who has owned her full-service agency for ___ years, said that while it might be assumed that recent hurricane regions would be the only places where flood-damaged vehicles are available, auto auctions around the country can and do purchase such vehicles and ship them to farflung locations.

While there are certain obvious signs of water damage if the buyer is aware of what to look for, it’s easy enough to overlook certain telltale signs if you’re not on guard.

One easily adopted cautionary measure, particularly if the buyer is looking for a car at a salvage auction, is to know that the salvage designation in and of itself is a warning sign that warrants additional research.

That, among other strategies, includes running the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, through a recognized database to find a step-by-step chronology of the car’s history. Already, according to national reports, a large U.S. salvage company acquires roughly 3 million cars every year from sources nationwide, 30,000 of which this year came from the area in and around Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

Carfax, one of the most recognizable auto-history companies in the U.S., maintains a free service that monitors vehicle flood damage. Although history data is said to be reasonably accurate, experts remind users that each state may use a different formula to define the word “salvage,” so a salvage company’s statement might not include damage that could remain undiscovered for weeks or months.

While buying from a recognized, established dealership remains the way most vehicle buyers can feel confident in their choice, Consumer Reports offers a few tips for those who like the idea of buying from an individual seller.

Here are some of the warning signs that the buyer or the buyer’s mechanic should keep an eye out for:

  • Rust showing on unpainted metal, even in such places as on screws underneath the dashboard.
  • Headlights that have a water line showing on the lens or the reflector behind it.
  • Drain plugs, notably rubber plugs, on the underside of the vehicle that may have been removed to allow water to escape.
  • Mud that is caked on; new carpet in older vehicles; a musty odor from the interior.
  • Traces of mud or out-of-place fragments of one kind or another found in less accessible parts of the vehicle, as in difficult-to-reach areas of the hood or trunk.

According to Contreras, purchasing a vehicle from a private party can be how some buyers—particularly those who consider themselves mechanically well-versed—prefer to negotiate what they consider a good deal.

But the advantage of buying from a reputable dealer typically represents a more characteristically problem-free purchase as well as establishing a two-way relationship that can last through the anticipated life of the vehicle.