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.