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Beware the Flood Cars of Hurricane Sandy

Extensive Flood Damage Possible from Huge Eastern Seaboard Storm


Beware the Flood Cars of Hurricane Sandy

A van sits abandoned in the flood waters on Imlay Street in Red Hook in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene on August 28, 2011 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Expect similar flooded used cars from Hurricane Sandy.

Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Hurricane Sandy that blew through the Eastern Seaboard on Oct. 29, 2012, has the potential to create lots of flooded vehicles because it cut such a wide swath of damage.

It differs from Hurricane Katrina that struck back in 2005 because that was largely contained to two states. The flooded used cars were most likely to be from either Louisiana or Mississippi.

This time the damage is going to be much more widespread as demonstrated by the accompanying map from Google Crisis Maps. It shows how the effects of Hurricane Sandy are from North Carolina all the way up to Maine.

Carl Sullivan, an expert from AiM Vehicle Inspections, was quoted in an article at DetroitBureau.com. He said, "A car that's been in a flood, with the engine submerged for any length of time, will never be the same," said Sullivan, who has nearly two decades of experience inspecting vehicles for AiM, a California-based team of auto inspectors. "It's important for used car shoppers to know how to spot flood damage no matter where they live, because these cars can end up on a dealer lot anywhere in the country."

Sadly, you're going to have to consider any used car being sold after Oct. 28, 2012, as a potential flood vehicle if it comes from the following areas: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. CarFax.com says half of all such flood-damaged vehicles get cleaned up and sold as normal used cars.

Obviously, the first thing to do is pull a vehicle history report. Check to see when the vehicle was last sold and the time before that. Quick flips across state lines could demonstrate potential problems. You shouldn't see any indication of flood damage on a vehicle history report because that really means the vehicle should have been declared a total loss. Don't buy a used car that shows flood damage on it.

(There are going to be naysayers who downplay this and claim they bought used cars with flood damage for $500 that were worth $25,000 and they ran for 17 years and got 60 mpg. Don't take those people seriously.)

Any used car has been declared flood damaged is most likely going to be totaled and that's a good thing. Since 2009, largely in part because of the flood cars from Hurricane Katrina and widespread Midwest flooding, there has been a national registry of totaled vehicles.

That doesn't mean savvy crooks aren't going to be able to find ways around it. Your single best protection against buying a potential flood used car is to find the vehicle identification number. The most obvious place is in the front windshield right in front of where the driver sits. Then run your vehicle history report based on the VIN.

However, to be sure that you're not buying a flood-damaged used car, you're going to need to make sure the vehicle identification numbers match on the used car you are buying. DMV.org offers advice on finding a vehicle identification number:

  • At the front of the engine block. This should be easy to spot by popping open the hood, and looking at the front of the engine.
  • At the front of the car frame, near the container that holds windshield washer fluid.
  • At a rear wheel well. Try looking up, directly above the tire.
  • Inside the driver-side doorjamb. Open the door, and look underneath where the side-view mirror would be located if the door was shut.
  • At the driver-side doorpost. Open the door, and look near the spot where the door latches, not too far from the seatbelt return.
  • Underneath the spare tire.
  • If you still can't locate the VIN, try consulting your vehicle manual. Or, call a dealership or the manufacturer and request guidance.

One way to avoid flood-damaged cars when buying a used car is to consider certified pre-owned. These are used cars, trucks and SUVs that have been certified by a new car dealer to standards set by automobile manufacturers. Sure, a dealer could certify a used car with flood damage as being certified pre-owned, but there are protections offered by the manufacturer.

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