Attorney General Chris Carr is advising consumers who are buying used cars to be wary of vehicles that might have suffered flood damage as a result of Hurricane Ian.
“With flood-damaged vehicles likely entering the marketplace in the wake of Hurricane Ian, consumers should take extra precautions when shopping for a used car,” said Carr. “We encourage Georgians to have a trusted mechanic inspect any used vehicle they are thinking of buying before they sign a contract or pay any money.”
Flood-damaged vehicles are often sold at auction and then wind up on used car lots. Generally, a flood-damaged vehicle is declared a total loss by an auto insurer and titled as a “salvage vehicle.” However, bad actors may try to conceal the damage by engaging in a practice known as “title washing,” whereby they move the vehicle to another state where branding a title as damaged is not required, and then sell the vehicle back in the original state or elsewhere so that the title looks clean. There may be no official record of the flooding or water damage if a car was uninsured at the time that the damage occurred. For these reasons, the car dealer that ends up selling the vehicle may not always be aware that the vehicle suffered flood damage in the first place.
If a vehicle’s body, engine, transmission or mechanical parts have been submerged in water, it will probably have electrical problems and the brakes, airbags and computer system may be impaired. Unfortunately, this damage may not be readily apparent, especially to the average consumer.
There are several things that you can do to avoid buying a flood-damaged vehicle:
- Check the vehicle’s history by going to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NVMTIS). This is the only publicly available database to which all auto insurers, salvage pools that auction off totaled cars, junkyards, and auto recyclers in all 50 states are required by federal law to report total loss vehicles within 30 days. Go to vehiclehistory.gov, enter the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), and check to see whether the car has been branded as “junk,” “salvage,” “flood,” “rebuilt” or “reconstructed.”
- The National Insurance Crime Bureau also maintains on its website a partial database of vehicles affected by hurricanes. You can search without charge by either the VIN or the HIN (Hull identification number). Keep in mind that this information has not been verified for completeness or accuracy. When you search this database or review the vehicle history report, remember that neither is a substitute for a thorough physical inspection.
- Look for signs of flood damage. A musty odor, water marks or faded fabrics may be a sign of flood damage. A strong detergent smell inside the car or in the engine may indicate that someone is trying to mask a mildew smell. Rust and metal flaking are another red flag. Check the upholstery, dashboard, glove compartment, trunk, inner doors, engine area, and under the seats and carpeting for mud or silt. Look for drainage holes beneath the car. Test and retest the ignition, lights, wipers, air conditioner, heater and all accessories.
- Most importantly, have the car inspected by a trusted mechanic who is not affiliated with the dealership selling the vehicle. Have this inspection done before you sign a contract or pay any money.
- For additional tips on buying a used vehicle, visit consumered.georgia.gov/buying-car/car-shopping/shopping-used-car.
For questions, contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division by calling (404) 651-8600 or visit our website at consumer.georgia.gov.