Hurricane Allison flooded tens of thousands of cars and trucks on her destructive sweep through the South this summer.
Ancient weather news? Maybe so, but many of those damaged vehicles have been spiffed up and returned to the market, sometimes in states far from where the storm raged.
Don't assume it's not an issue here just because this isn't hurricane country. Experts warn that used-car shoppers should study the car and its title to avoid falling prey to a buying a flooded car.
Unscrupulous sales of flooded cars aren't a pervasive problem in New York state, but they do happen, said Joe Picchi, a spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles. "There have been some cars brought in, and we do watch for it."
The problem tends to spike nationwide after a major storm or flooding, said Andy Beck, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association. Some unscrupulous owners will clean them up to erase signs of flooding, but not actually make the necessary repairs.
A flooded car might look all right and could even work fine, at first. The problems might take longer to show up, but they're no less significant, particularly if the vehicle's electrical system is damaged, said Julie Atlas, a spokeswoman for Carfax, which conducts vehicle history reports.
"You don't want your ABS brakes to fail in a flooded car," she said.
Atlas notes that a recent survey by Bruskin Research revealed flood damage was something a majority of respondents weren't thinking to look for in a car they were buying.
That might seem like a reasonable oversight in Northern states, where flooded cars are relatively uncommon. But flooded cars get moved around through auctions and private sales, and moving them outside the areas struck by flooding is one way to catch buyers unaware. Car buyers in places such as Florida and Texas tend to be more attuned to the possibility of flood damage since they've often lived through it.
Atlas, of Carfax, notes that of the 75,000 vehicles flooded by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, it's estimated that half of them are back on the road.
It's not illegal for someone to sell a flooded car, so long as the owner informs potential buyers that it was flooded, Picchi said.
Checking the title is one way to spot a problem if the owner doesn't volunteer that key bit of information. In New York state, a car that's suffered damage equal to 75 percent or more of its value is supposed to be labeled as "salvaged."
A vehicle history report, from a service such as CarFax or Info4cars allows buyers to delve into a vehicle's past, particularly in cases of vehicles brought in from other states. Each service charges about $15 for a single search.
Those searches can catch a lot of problem cars that aren't properly labeled as flooded. But they aren't foolproof. A car's title will be tagged as flooded only if it was totaled by an insurance company; that excludes cars that weren't insured. It's also possible an insured car could have suffered some flood damage, but not enough to be totaled by an insurance company.
Don't limit your research to the title. Have a mechanic check the vehicle and look for telltale signs. "A lot of these cars have been cleaned up pretty much after being in a hurricane in the Carolinas," Picchi said.
A strong musty smell inside the car can be a tip-off. Also look under the floorboard carpets for water residue or stain marks from evaporated water that's unrelated to air conditioning pan leaks.
Look under the dashboard for dried mud and residue, the NADA says, and check for rusting on the inside of the car. Inspect the electrical wiring system for rusted parts, residue or suspicious corrosion. Check the trunk for silt and mud.
A vehicle that's been flood-damaged isn't necessarily a lost cause. But it requires extensive cleaning and repairs, such as removing and replacing the interior and fixing up the electrical components, the NADA says.