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How Not to Buy a Storm-Damaged Used Car

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That 2004 Dodge Neon I'm looking at online is $6,000 at a local used car lot here in the Northeast. It looks shiny and clean, but how does a buyer know that it hasn’t taken an inadvertent bath in the raging torrent known as Hurricane Sandy?

This car went through Hurricane Sandy in hard-hit Staten Island, New York, and you definitely should avoid it if it turns up on a used-car lot near you. (Flickr/Adrian Kinloch)Unfortunately, some dealers aren’t above disguising a storm-damaged car as pristine. Why would they do that? Profits! As AOL Autos explains:

When vehicles are totaled, the insurance company pays the insured and issues a ‘branded’ title indicating the type of loss (Salvage, Rebuilt Wreck, Flood Victim), and takes possession of the vehicle. The vehicle is then hauled off to an insurance auction. Most buyers represent legitimate businesses (body shops and car dealers), but there are also unscrupulous vehicle rebuilders who own chop shops among the group. These vultures are vying to buy as many (formerly) premium vehicles as they can at the lowest possible price. They will rebuild them as cheaply as possible and sell them back into the auction circuit. The auction buyer is their prey.

Among the things they’re going to do is change the vehicle identification number so the branded title won’t come to light. Carfax and other services will uncover those titles, but not if the car has the wrong VIN number. Cars.com explains how that works. If you don’t think this would happen, then you have an overly optimistic view of human nature. It can and does happen. I called Tommy Thompson, a salesman at Mimi Dragone Used Cars in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and he said it is “quite possible” that storm-damaged cars will turn up on the used car circuit. “I’ve seen it before,” he said.

A car that didn’t receive shelter from the storm may look fine, but it’s an accident waiting to happen. As AAA points out, flood water is hugely hazardous to your car’s health—the combination of water and sand (from beach areas) acts as a corrosive and abrasive mixture to shorten the car’s life, even if it looks fine. Here are some tips from the Wall Street Journal about dealing with your own storm-tossed car.

You want your car to tow your boat, not crash into it. (Flickr/Pam Andrade)One giveaway is an unusually cheap price, especially on the kind of high-end luxury car that is favored by storm profiteers. Thompson added that Dragone would never sell such cars, and that there are telltale signs of vehicles that have taken on water. These include:

Rust spots. Thompson looks at the firewall, inside door jambs and under the car for paint-free areas that are now bright red with rust.

Ill-fitting, discolored or bad-smelling carpeting and door panels. The bad guys probably took out the rugs, hung them up to dry, and then refitted them, but not with the care taken at the factory. And getting out all of the mold and mildew smell is going to be darn near impossible.

Compromised fluids. Look for milky oil and power steering fluid. Metal flakes in the latter indicates possibly storm-induced wear. Coolant should be neon green or orange, and a burnt smell is a bad sign. Auto trans fluid should be uniformly red, but if you’re looking at what one source called a “strawberry milkshake,” that’s an indication that water might have invaded.

Dirt deposits. Floods leave debris behind, and the trickster’s power wash probably didn’t get it all. Look for little piles of sand, dirt or leaf matter in out-of-the-way spots.
If in doubt, don’t buy. A storm-damaged car probably won’t play out its losing hand right away, but it will age prematurely and be a big source of unnecessary bills in the years to come.

Sandy made mincemeat of cars all over the Northeast. (Flickr/Bozer)The storm’s effects are continuing to unfold. The Detroit Bureau informs me that Hurricane Sandy could throw off what was shaping up to be a very good month for auto sales. According to TrueCar.com, October had been on track for a Seasonally Adjusted Annualized rate of 14.9 million, up 11.5 percent from the year before. Given the lost shopping days in the Northeast, that’s not going to happen now. We’re looking at 14.4 million instead. “The last thing a person wants to do is buy a car,” an Acura dealer in hard-hit New Jersey told the New York Times. But the effect won’t likely be deep or long-lasting—Edmunds estimates 30,000 lost sales in the impacted regions, which cover approximately 20 percent of the national car market.

The other side of this is all those storm-damaged cars—they’ll have to be replaced, which will be a boost to new car sales. There’s not much to worry about with a new 2013. But used car sales should definitely put would-be buyers on guard.

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