'Fixed up' cars from hurricanes flooding used car market

Spot a water-damaged vehicle before you buy a ticking time bomb

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two months after Hurricane Irma hit our area, you could be hit with another disaster. Experts are warning that the used car market could be saturated with flood-damaged cars.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Florida drivers filed 215,000 claims that their vehicles were damaged from Irma. In Texas, more than 422,000 insured vehicles were damaged by Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters. If you include the number of cars that were not insured, that number could be around one million.

Josephine Cleland and her husband lost three cars in Clay County when Irma brought devastating flooding to Black Creek.

"I still can’t get used to it. It’s just tears you up," she told us.

 In Orange Park, Bill Basford’s home also flooded -- and as did his SUV.

"The SUV that was in there, the 4Runner, they declared 'totaled' because all the mold that was in there," he explained.

Flood-damaged cars up for sale

Experts are sounding the alarm for anyone in the market for a used car because vehicles ruined by the hurricanes are popping up for sale online and at used car lots.

“Too often, when an insurance company declares a flood-damaged car a total loss, that information isn’t communicated to potential buyers,” warned Consumer Reports Auto Editor Jon Linkov.

When a car is declared totaled from flood waters, it loses its title. It’s illegal to be sold for anything but parts, but con artists can be smart. Experts say scammers get around the "no title" problem by getting a clean title from another state. That allows them to turn around and sell that water-damaged vehicle as if it were never wet.

Flooded cars 'fixed up' like new

Carfax showed News4Jax how easy it can be to take unsuspecting buyers to the cleaners. They took a flood-damaged car to the wash. It looks ruined and filled with mud. But, after a few hours of cleaning, they had the vehicle looking like new.

That’s bad news, even though a car might look and smell like new, it could be a ticking time bomb on the inside -- putting your family at risk on the road.

"If you left his just like this without repairing it, it is definitely a fire hazard," mechanic Steve Sabonya said.

Sabonya warns the airbags might not work, the wiring that controls your car could stop working too, and your brakes could go out at any moment.

"And what could happen is this wheel could lock up," added Sabonya.

Signs a car was flooded

Consumer Reports says there are red flags to look out for when shopping for a used vehicle. Here are things to check to see if a car was flooded:

1. The first thing you want to do is come over to the front of the car. Inhale and see if there’s any kind of moldy or musty smell. If you have that you definitely want to walk away from the car.

2. Next, pop up the trim panel on the side of the door to see if the carpet is dirty or if there’s any kind of sediment or rust. 

3. Also look in the door pockets for any kind of sediment, dirt or stones. If the water came up into the car, as it drained away, it would settle and hide n there. 

4. Pop off some of the caps and covers for the seat bolts. If they are scratched up or even look rusted, that means the seat was taken out so it could air dry. 

5. Look where a spare tire would be kept. If it jas sound deadening, smell it to see if it’s musty or moldy. See if there’s any rust on exposed screws on the panels -- or even on the tools like the jack or the jack stand. 

6. Look along the back of the engine bay where there's some soft material. Receding water is going to leave a flood line. If there’s anything like that, walk away from the vehicle. 

Consumer Reports says if a car has moisture in the dash or headlights, that too is a bad sign, and you’ll want to stay away.

3 things to do before buying a used car 

  • Demand the Carfax or any other vehicle history report.
  • Enter the  Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) into the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s database for free.
  • Take it to a trusted mechanic to be checked. Remember, if the car’s previous owner or insurance company did not report any damage, it won't show up in any history reports. Taking it to a mechanic might cost you some money up front, but experts say it will save you in the long run.

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