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The destructive force of Hurricane Sandy last October was jaw dropping, but more subtle consequences from the storm are still emerging. Some people saw dollar signs bobbing in those murky floodwaters in the form of totaled cars. After exposing faulty gas pumps and mechanics overcharging female customers, ABC's 'The Lookout' is once again educating consumers with an investigation into what happened to hundreds of thousands of cars damaged in the storm.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau an estimated 250,000 cars sat in corrosive salt water for days. Where did all of these cars end up? Not in junkyards, but used car dealerships across the country. Dealerships, junkyards and private buyers buy the totaled cars at auction. Sometimes they fix them up cosmetically and sell them back to unsuspecting customers. In fact, CARFAX estimates that around 100,000 of these cars are already back on the roads. That's bad news.

"Flood cars literally rot from the inside out," Christopher Basso, public relations manager at CARFAX, told ABC.

Flood-damaged cars are ticking time bombs of mechanical issues. A car may run fine when initially purchased, but quickly fall apart as corrosion takes hold. Damage can be easily concealed if you don't know what to look for. 'The Lookout' found a Ford F-350 pickup truck and Sandy victim priced at $19,999 dollars. The salesman called the flood warning on the car's history a 'glitch', but the investigators found serious water damage, such as a corroded transmission and malfunctioning airbags.

-- Do the research. Always conduct a thorough pre-purchase inspection and title search before buying any used car. When vehicles are totaled, the insurance company issues a "branded" title indicating the type of loss, such as salvage, rebuilt wreck or flood victim, and takes possession of the vehicle for auction. By law a salvaged car must carry this warning on its title but beware of 'title washing,' a practice in which unscrupulous dealers re-register a car in several states which have slightly different requirements until the insurance brand is removed. If the car has the original VIN, a CARFAX report can protect you from title washing.

-- Check for water lines. Look in the glove box, the engine compartment, trunk, wheel wells and door jams for tell-tale water damage blotches. Electrical connections with a green crusty substance or seat mounting bolts with rust are also dead giveaways that a car was underwater. While you're inspecting the car check under the seat or between the seat and the center console for fine dirt or silt carried by floodwaters into the car.

-- Check the fluids. Oil, power steering fluid, transmission fluid, and differential fluid all turn milky when mixed with water. Check the fluids and take a look at the dipstick. Rust here will indicated water damage and unscrupulous techs often forget to change this simple piece of equipment when rebuilding a salvaged car.

-- Give it a sniff. Even the strongest Febreze or air freshener can't completely kill the moldy smell seats and carpeting gain from slowly drying. A strong odor right away will tell you the car was in a flood, but if you're not sure roll up the windows and let the car sit for a while. The stale air will have a telltale basement smell. Also, if carpeting and upholstery seem too new for the car or even loose that might indicate a major overhaul of the interior.

-- How are the electronics? Reach under the steering wheel and feel the wiring. Brittle wires mean water damage. Static on the radio, flickering in the headlights or any number of electrical problems can indicate water damage.


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  • 25 Comments
      offdepp
      • 1 Year Ago
      We need to put our big boy/girl pants on and be responsible for our actions and purchases. Caveat Emptor = Let the buyer beware. If said buyer doesn't get pass the pretty paint and the radio. Then they get want they paid for to bad to sad. I had a floor damage Fiero 1987 (yes GM's easy bake oven on wheels) Never had problem with the car in 4 years and 70,000 miles. Sales people just give disclosure and let buyer make up their own mind.
      wwingard
      • 1 Year Ago
      I almost was caught in this scam. But then I looked at carfax and too many things like everything was replaced and it was titled to many times in a short time then I saw rust on bolts where they shouldn't be so changed my mind.
      yesiam2000
      • 1 Year Ago
      Totalling a car and branding the title as "salvage" doesn't mean the car is not roadworthy. At least in SC. Here there are degrees of salvage. Sometimes it means "unroadworthy and undriveable" AND it could mean it IS driveable and roadworthy, BUT it can only be sold one time after it is titled that way. I know, becuase my daughter was rear ended at a stop light, and insurance totalled the car because the repairs would cost more than it was worth. BUT the car was still safe to drive with the damage to the back end. So they titled it "salvage". And two years later when my daughter decided to accept our car as a gift, and sell her old car, we found out that it could be sold one time only. We told this to the buyer. That after he bought it, he would be unable to sell it later on if he wished. He bought it, because he was getting it for half what it would have sold for if it were not tiled "salvage". One more thing.the car was insured, and could be insured by his company, but only for liability, not collision.
      bensonrd
      • 1 Year Ago
      While everyone is quick to blame the "tech"...remember that you are in a "buyer-be-ware" situation ANY time you buy ( virtually anything these days) a vehicle, especially a used one- though I would not be to happy to be the proud owner of a Toyota that wouldn't stop, wouldn't go or just caught fire (OOOHHH what a feeling)! this is a major purchase- no mater what your income level, the best thing you can do is know a reputable tech and or dealler near you ( and most of them are).
      hsenpfeffer
      • 1 Year Ago
      salestrash have no conscience or decency.
      Uncle Bob
      • 1 Year Ago
      America screwing America Americans screwing Americans
      • 1 Year Ago
      yes where is the ending?
      Kay
      • 1 Year Ago
      It doesn't even have to be a flood car. We found what we thought was a good first car for out daughter, at least my husband did! He spotted it in a yard near where we live. He checked to see if it was for sale and they agreed to sell it to him, and he told them he was buying it for his daughter for her first car, for graduation. They never said a word and now I know that hubby did not check the car very closly, just the interior, which was clean, and the milage, which wasn't too bad for a used car. I don't remember what we paid for the car but I do know that it was not a lot or hubby wouldn't have bought it. After he got it home, he started to really look it over and found that there was a problem with the frame underneath. It had somehow cracked and been welded. I ddidn't understand it all but in the end he would NOT allow our daughter to drive the car because of the danger of it breaking again. Before you buy a used car, any used car, take it to a mechanic that you trust and have them go over it with a fine tooth comb. I now have a mechanic that I trust with all of my vehicles, he happens to be a friend of my son. I also know and he knows that he would never mess with me or lie to me because I know where he lives......lol. Joking of course but he really is honest. We have sent other people to this mechanic and all can not believe the good work he does and how reasonable he is with his prices! Like he told me, the next time you have a problem, just drive right past the dealership, wave and call me! I do that now, except with my new vehicle that is still under warranty! My suggestion is to become friends with your mechanic and try to stay away from a dealership if possible for mechanical work! They do over charge!
      dealer502
      • 1 Year Ago
      this is a fluff article. Just purchase a vehicle history report. that will tell you the title history and if it has been salvaged, flooded, stolen, or reconditioned. Now, it is up to the purchaser to determine if the car is worthy of his money. If you have any doubts, walk away and buy another one.
        newcars
        • 1 Year Ago
        @dealer502
        Doesn't tell you anything that an insurance company doesn't report. Carfax is worthless.... If the previous owner paid for repairs out of their pocket it won't be on a Carfax. I was a used car manager and as an example we had a VW get traded in, seemed to low miles and some other things were not right. Well both the airbags were gone it had been hit hard in the front and also had major frame damage. It didn't show because the previous owner had some crappy cheap repairs done and paid for it himself. Carfax wouldn't honor buy back and we had to have the authorities get involve with a charge of fraud. We pulled carfaxes upto that point on EVERY car. Bottom line it tells you what you could find elsewhere but they charge you, nothing wrong with that but spend the money having a reputable body shop and service department look it over if you have cause to suspect something.
      rdz69
      • 1 Year Ago
      many of these "flood" cars will go 200,000 miles or more-bogus article....
      weeziebathome
      • 1 Year Ago
      I live on the Jersey shore, and there was a lot of devestation all around our home. We usually buy good used cars, but not next time. Because of all the totaled cars, we decided right after the storm that our next car will be right off the lot. (I hope that day doesn't come for awhile. It's nice not having a car payment!)
      mtp31@aol.com
      • 1 Year Ago
      http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VDKA0_lk41wanq/nightline-lookout-731-flood-cars rest of video
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