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Hurricane Harvey and the Flood of Water-damaged Used Cars

National disasters like Hurricane Harvey can bring out the best in people, inspiring folks to pull together to help those in need. The auto industry is usually no different, with dealerships and companies from Ford to Toyota to Mercedes-Benz pitching in with millions in aid. But for a few shady characters those same conditions only inspire them to do their worst, whether it’s price-gouging on immediate essentials or preparing flood-damaged cars for a larger, more lucrative scam.

How large? Well, some experts claim up to 500,000 vehicles were affected by the storm and rising waters, and if past CARFAX research is any guide, about half of them will somehow resurface in the pre-owned marketplace. That can be perfectly legal with the proper disclosure, of course, but customers face a big risk from unscrupulous sellers: It’s surprisingly easy for them to make a few quick, cosmetic repairs to hide the obvious marks of flood damage. As a result, our data shows that more than 270,000 flood-damaged used cars were already either on the road or on sale at the end of last year.

This year, with more of those vehicles likely on their way, it’s time for shoppers to get prepared.

Give all Vehicles a Thorough Inspection

A comprehensive inspection is a good idea when shopping for any pre-owned car or truck, but it’s especially important if you think that vehicle has been in a flood. Remember, many of today’s vehicles rely on the same kind of sophisticated technologies and advanced electronics as a smartphone. Both may be fine after the occasional puddle, yet neither would do so well after being completely submerged for a few days. (And just try getting a bag of rice big enough to dry out an SUV.)

Luckily, there are a few tell-tale signs of water damage that you can look for when checking out a used car. For example, debris and dirt may be left over in certain places, such as under the seats, in the door-panel storage areas or in the glove compartment. Also be sure to give the interior a good sniff, in case there are any lingering wet or musty odors. Only be aware of a car that smells too good, since some sellers may be using an air freshener as a cover-up method.

Another common trick is to replace damp and smelly carpeting with fresh material. This means you should keep an eye out for vehicles where the upholstery or carpeting doesn’t fit right or match, and the same goes for the floormats. Additionally, moisture and condensation may build up on the inside of the cabin lights or behind the instrument panel, and you may even be able to find rust growing in unexpected places. Again, looking beneath the seats is a quick way to bring this issue to light, as many vehicles hide unfinished pieces of metal, such as springs and bolts, down there out of sight. That under-seat hardware won’t get rusty or corroded without a reason, so if you come across damage find out what’s going on, or find different car.

You should check for flood debris and damage under the hood and in the trunk or hatchback, too, as well as in the wheels. This includes in and around the spare, where standing water can sometimes collect.

Take it for a Test Drive

As with the inspection process, test driving a potentially flood-damaged used car requires a little extra effort as compared with the typical pre-owned vehicle. Thus, you have to cover the basics, like verifying that the car starts without a problem and that the engine runs smoothly, with no odd noises or smells. It’s also particularly important to concentrate on the transmission, steering system and brakes with these vehicles. Like the power plant, these systems depend on various fluids to operate safely. But if a car’s oil or power-steering fluid, for instance, have been contaminated by flood water, you could be facing a catastrophic failure.

A further concern has to do with all of the technology that goes into modern-day cars and trucks. Although high-tech electronics have made driving easier and safer than ever, automakers haven’t given much thought to making them waterproof. With this in mind, used-car shoppers should be certain that any audio, infotainment and driver-assistance features (and any power amenities) are in working order. A tip here: Because a lot of audio speakers produce sound with paper diaphragms, or cones, they’re extremely susceptible to water damage. And because many vehicles now have speakers mounted in their lower door panels, they can be among the first car components affected by flooding. Once you put those factors together, listening for audio issues becomes another warning sign.

Take it to an Expert

Listening to the experts also is worthy advice. Most people simply don’t have the experience and know-how to properly vet any used car, let alone one that may have taken up scuba diving. Many local mechanics, on the other hand, will do the job for a relatively small fee. (They’re more likely to spot those previously mentioned safety concerns as well.)

A CARFAX Vehicle History Report also includes detailed information that can help you identify flood-damaged used cars. This naturally includes repair and title info specifically about reported water damage, with CARFAX drawing on data from insurance companies, collision-repair shops, motor-vehicle agencies, auto auctions and others.

CARFAX can also offer key buyer insights even if scammers do get a fraudulent, flood-free title for a damaged vehicle. A case in point is a car’s detailed ownership history, which can tell you where and when that vehicle was registered or sold in the past. Remember, just because a pre-owned vehicle is being offered in your area now, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t in a hurricane zone before. The opposite is often true, in fact: Shipping a flood-damaged used-vehicle from one part of the country to another is standard operating procedure for many of these criminals.

Complete a Free CARFAX Flood Check

Note, however, that you don’t need to request a full Vehicle History Report to take advantage of a free CARFAX Flood Check. Backed by an extensive database, this service only requires a vehicle identification number (VIN) and email address, and it lets you know almost immediately if any flood damage has been reported on a given used vehicle.

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