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Recent Floods Warning: Avoid Getting Soaked Buying Flood Car

By Evelyn Kanter, June 11th, 2011

Thousands of cars and trucks are water and flood damaged in the recent widespread Mississippi River flooding -- and some of them could end up for sale. We've got solid advice on how to recognize and avoid flood-damaged vehicles.

Rather than pay huge repair costs, insurance companies often declare flood-damaged vehicles a total loss, then cut their losses by reselling them to auto salvage companies. Salvaged or flooded vehicles are required by law in many states to be marked as such, which is why they are often resold and shipped hundreds of miles away, to be cleaned up and resold to an unsuspecting buyer in states that do not brand flood vehicles on the title. That's called "title washing." Be especially wary of a vehicle whose title has been "lost" and any vehicle priced well under book value.

Flood-damaged cars are dangerous to drive. You never know when the water-soaked transmission or engine will go, or the electrical or computer system will malfunction, causing safety systems such as airbags or anti-lock brakes to malfunction or fail entirely.

Before buying any used car, get a vehicle history report from services such as CarFax.com. Many used-car dealers throw this in for free, and that's a good sign that the dealer and the vehicle have nothing to hide. You can also check the free National Insurance Crime Bureau VINCheck, or the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (vehiclehistory.gov), a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers.

There's also a federal Lemon Law. Officially, it's the Magnuson-Moss Warranty act, which provides compensation for buying defective cars, trucks, recreational vehicles, motorcycles, and other products, including computers and appliances. Also, the Federal Trade Commission requires used-car dealers to post a buyer's guide on every used car, with details on warranty information.

Here are some tips from CarFax and Consumer Reports on identifying flood-soaked vehicles.

-- Check the trunk, glove compartment, dashboard and below the seats for signs of water damage such as silt, mud or rust. Use a flashlight to check under the dash for signs of rust on the heads of unpainted, exposed screws.

-- Examine upholstery and carpeting closely; if it doesn't match the interior or fits loosely, it may have been replaced. Discolored, faded or stained materials could indicate water damage. Look under the carpets for signs of dampness or mud.

-- Electronics, including computer chips, hate water. Turn the ignition key and make sure accessory and warning lights and gauges turn on and work properly, including the lights for the airbag and ABS come on. Test the interior and exterior lights, windshield wipers, turn signals, radio, heater and air conditioner several times to make sure they work. Same goes for the cigarette lighter or MP3 port.

-- Check headlights and taillights for signs of water build-up. This could include fogging inside headlamps, or a telltale water line. Also check for signs of a waterline on the exterior paint.

-- Flex some of the wires beneath the dashboard. Wet wires become brittle upon drying and may crack.

-- Take a deep breath and smell for musty odors from mildew. A strong perfume smell from an air freshener or cleaning solution could be covering up musky mildew.

Even though there are plenty of legal protections, it's still up to you to do your own due diligence, which includes having the vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic you trust before you sign on the dotted line.

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