AAA Warns Buyers To Beware Of Water-Damaged Used Cars

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HAMILTON — Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in the state and left hundreds of thousands of vehicles submerged in flood waters and salt water to varying degrees. Now some nine months later, Sandy is delivering up those seawater-damaged cars for sale on used car lots and by private sellers in New Jersey and surrounding states, says CARFAX.

“What might seem like a bargain too good to be true on a used car might become a nightmarish ordeal, resulting in extensive, difficult, and expensive repairs,” says Tracy Noble, spokesperson for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

AAA Mid-Atlantic warns car buyers that flood-damaged vehicles can be shipped anywhere for resale, and may show up for sale as early as one week after a devastating storm throughout the U.S. These vehicles can continue to appear in the marketplace for up to a year after a major flood. Due to the short time period between the water damage and being sold, often these vehicles are not identified as flood-damaged in national databases.

Whether you are shopping for a new vehicle from a dealer or are a used one from any source, AAA Mid-Atlantic offers these tips:

How to Spot a Flood-Damaged Vehicle

  • Engage your sense of smell to detect any damp or musty odors inside the vehicle.
  • Are the windows fogged up? Has the carpet or upholstery been replaced or recently shampooed? Pull back the carpet at different areas and look for mud, dirt or signs of water stains.
  • Inspect the dashboard underside for signs of mud and dirt. This is a particularly hard area to clean.
  • Look under the vehicle for corrosion. It is uncommon to find corrosion in newer vehicles and those that are owned or sold in southern states.
  • Open all doors, hood, and trunk to inspect for corrosion, mud and dirt or discoloration on the door frames, hinges and under the weather stripping. Pay special attention to small spaces and crevices that are difficult to clean.
  • Check all warning lights, window motors, and all electrical components to ensure they are working properly. While a non-working part alone does not mean the vehicle was flooded, it combined with other difficulties is a cause for concern.
  • Obtain a CARFAX Vehicle History Report. This report can potentially reveal if the vehicle has been involved in a flood, major accident, fire, or uncover odometer fraud.
  • Always have the vehicle inspected by a quality repair facility prior to purchasing. AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities are located across the United States. Nearby locations can be found at

In an effort to prevent flood-damaged vehicle histories from being “washed” when the vehicle travels from one state to another, the United States Department of Justice created the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) that links state motor vehicle departments together. NMVTIS, operated by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, is key weapon in protecting consumers from title fraud.

Nationally, 32 states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and the District of Columbia, both enter vehicle history data and also query the NMVTIS system before issuing new titles. Additionally, 8 states including Maryland provide data into the system but do not make title inquiries before new titles are issued. When all 50 states are fully on board with NMVTIS, it will become extremely difficult to “wash” a vehicle title to remove a flood or salvage designation when a vehicle is registered and sold in another state.

The objective of NMVTIS is to prevent cloning a “clean” or legal VIN number from one state onto a stolen or salvaged vehicle of the same make and model in a different state. A VIN plate with the cloned new identification number is then placed on the vehicle and, when matched with false ownership documents, it can be registered and then sold to an unsuspecting buyer.

“Consumers should always have a used vehicle inspected by a quality repair facility prior to purchasing,” says Noble. “In the case of a cloned stolen vehicle, check to see if the dashboard VIN plate has been tampered with and have your trusted mechanic look at the hard to find VIN markings elsewhere on the vehicle to make sure they are the same as the plate on the dashboard.”

Additionally, the New Jersey Department of Consumer Affairs houses an online database containing information about vehicles that have been issued salvage or flood titles since October 30, 2012. The State Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) has issued flood and salvage titles to thousands of vehicles that were damaged by the storm.

The State Division of Consumer Affairs and the MVC are committed to informing the public about what flood and salvage titles mean and in identifying the specific vehicles that have been issued these titles.

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