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Know the Warning Signs Before You Buy a Flood Damaged Car

By Insurance.com Posted : 09/18/2006

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused devastating damage to many residents' vehicles throughout New Orleans and Mississippi. In fact, the Insurance Information Institute estimates over 500,000 cars were damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. For many, this meant their cars were unsalvageable and were declared a total loss by their auto insurance company.

Once a vehicle is declared a total loss by an auto insurance company, the insurance company will reimburse the owner for the current value of their car, take possession of the car and sell it to a scrap yard to be broken down for parts or demolished. In addition, flood damaged cars receive a special flood damaged title to warn potential buyers of the damage to the car. With that being said, you should never have to worry about buying a flood damaged car, right? Wrong!

Beware of Scam Artists
Some car owners may not have auto insurance coverage to protect their car from the damage of a flood or may try and sell the cars for cash instead of reporting the damage to their auto insurance company. Often these cars are bought by shady car dealers or scam artists who "clean the cars up" to look and smell like new on the outside, but are a mechanic nightmare on the inside.

Hoping to make a quick buck, salvage operators and dealers often try to conceal the fact the vehicles they're trying to sell have been damaged by a flood by adding a fresh coat of paint, replacing the floor mats, reupholstering the car seats and even spraying a new car sent into the car to try and mask the odor. In addition to making the car appear in good condition, scam artists will go as far as to "wash the title" of the car by moving the vehicle to another state that may not have flood damage title laws, making it harder for the consumer to figure out if the car was involved in a flood.

How to Detect a Flood Damaged Car
Although you can't prevent the selling of flood damaged cars, you can protect yourself by looking for these Insurance Information Institute indicators which suggest a car may have been involved in a flood:

  • Mildew, debris and silt in places where it wouldn't normally be found, such as under the carpeting in the trunk, or around the engine compartment
  • Rust on screws and other metal parts
  • Waterstains or faded upholstery; discoloration of seat belts and door panels
  • Dampness in the floor and carpeting; moisture on the inside of the instrument panel
  • A moldy odor or an intense smell of Lysol or deodorizer being used to cover up an odor problem

Get an Expert's Opinion
Salt water can do a great deal of damage to a car's electronic system, especially if the car has been submerged in water for an extended period of time. With that being said, it is a good idea to have a certified mechanic look over the car from hood to trunk before you decide to buy.

Ask your mechanic to check the car's:

  • Electronic system
  • Transmission
  • Anti-lock brake system
  • Airbags

Having these areas checked will not only help detect if the automobile you're looking at was indeed in a flood, but will also let you know if the car is actually safe to drive.

Research the Car's History
Another way you can protect yourself from purchasing a flood damaged car is by ordering a CARFAX Vehicle History Report. All you need is the car's 17-character vehicle identification number (VIN), which can be found on the vehicle's dashboard or on the title, and you'll be linked to a detailed vehicle history report of the car you're looking to purchase. Potential used car buyers can also logon to the National Insurance Crime Bureau's website to view a list compiled by the National Insurance Crime Bureau and auto insurance companies of vehicles involved in a claim related to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

Selling Flood Damaged Vehicles
If you suspect a local car dealer is committing fraud by knowingly selling "flooded cars" as a good condition used car, contact your auto insurance company, local law enforcement agency or the National Insurance Crime Bureau at 800-TEL-NICB.

What to Do If You're in a Flood
If your car is involved in a flood, contact your auto insurance company immediately. You'll be asked to provide your policy number, a list of items damaged in the flood and the location of the flood. Once your agent has the information he/she needs to process the claim, they'll more than likely have your vehicle towed to a certified mechanic for a thorough evaluation.

Flood Coverage
Your comprehensive portion of your auto insurance policy covers any damage done to your vehicle during a flood, fire or wind storm. If you don't have comprehensive coverage, but would like to add it to your policy, logon to Insurance.com's auto comparison site. Here you'll be able to evaluate up to four rates from over a dozen leading auto insurance companies, helping you find the best auto insurance policy for your budget and flood zone area.

Compare real rates and save real money
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