13 Investigates: Flood Cars - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 Investigates: Flood Cars

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BIRMINGHAM, AL - The floodwaters from last week's storms have long receded, but they've left behind damaged cars - which could spell trouble if you're looking to buy a used vehicle.

Owners *can* settle with their insurance companies  or not even  make a claim, then, clean up their damaged cars just enough to sell them.

Not only is it a threat to your wallet, but more importantly, to your safety.

What do you need to know to avoid buying a flood-damaged car or truck?

Flooding is a fact of life in Alabama at this time of year. These are *natural* disasters. Then there are the man-made disasters like selling flood-damaged cars.

The National insurance Crime Bureau NICB defines a flood vehicle as "being completely or partially submerged in water to the extent that the engine or other mechanical component parts have been damaged."

Some states have enacted laws with specific standards requiring that flood-damaged vehicles be titled as salvage, flood or water-damaged.

In Alabama, if a car has been declared a total loss by an insurance company because of storm damage, the owner should receive a "salvage title" then that car cannot be legally driven on Alabama highways or have a valid license plate.

The "salvage" or "flood" title should also show up on the car's history report at places like carfax.com and the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

But a car that's been underwater could be for sale - by a person trying to get around the system... without filing an insurance claim ...or by a company that's fleet is self-insured.  

An unsuspecting buyer could end up buying nothing but trouble. Even if the car looks good -- the engine or electrical system could have damage.  A short in the computer system could cause sudden failure.

Mechanic Trent Hatfield says you may not see anything wrong in the short term, but in the long run he says, “You actually encounter corrosion after a while, it gets into electrical components and shorts them out, disaster for the whole car. You fix this piece then another piece and another piece. That’s why insurance companies total them and you cash for the total value of the vehicle.”

Hatfield says your nose knows! Check for strange odors.

“Sort of a mildew wet smell and look up in the dash for places where it's hard to clean and most people aren't going to clean,” said Hatfield.

Strong air freshener scent may be another sign the seller is trying to cover something up.

Look in the trunk. Lift up the carpet for sign of water mildew and discoloration. The car's exterior may have a water line that's been washed off so look in the wheel wells where there's water or look up all the way up here see if the roof is discolored.

Bottom line: Buyer beware!

It's always a good idea to get a pre-purchase inspection especially in a private sale from a total stranger.

It only takes about an hour.

Hatfield says he charges $95 an hour which may be worth your time. “You can usually find something that covers the cost that you can negotiate on the price of a car, or we can tell you this car was underwater or in a major wreck or wasn't taken care of that you don't really want to buy this vehicle,” said Hatfield.

Carfax estimates more than half of the vehicles with salvage titles are resold.

If you suspect you've bought a flood-damaged vehicle, there is legal recourse... if you can find the seller.

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