ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota consumers are being warned against a potential influx of flood cars damaged in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) says cars totalled by Sandy in 2012, may become the used-car-buyer's nightmare of 2013. Tens of thousands of vehicles sustained severe water damage in the storm and its associated flooding, which can damage a vehicle's electrical system, including airbag sensors, and make them prone to failure.
Based on experience with flood-damaged vehicles associated with Hurricane Katrina, the DPS says it is very likely that many states, including Minnesota, will soon begin to see flood-damaged vehicles enter the market for sale, titling or registration.
The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) is designed to protect consumers from concealed vehicle histories. Consumers can look up a vehicle through the NMVTIS website at with the vehicle identification number (VIN).
Insurance companies are required under federal law to report any vehicle that they deemed to be a total loss.
However, the requirement operates on a 30-day cycle. Therefore, it is possible that flood-damaged vehicles may be presented for titling or registration and a database check may not show a report by an insurer because it has not yet been reported.
Minnesota brands flood-damaged vehicles when declared a total loss by an insurer or when the repairs exceed more than 80 percent of the vehicle's fair market value.
Be on the lookout for the telltale signs of flood damage when shopping for a used car. Once a vehicle has been cleaned cosmetically the flood damage can be difficult to detect.
"Vehicles that look clean might not have been inspected by a professional for mechanical and electrical performance," warns Patricia McCormack, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Driver and Vehicle Services Division. "Hidden damage can cause an owner serious problems weeks or even months later."
The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) suggests car buyers inspect vehicles for signs of flood damage:
- Look under the carpet in the trunk and under the seats. Evidence of dampness, rust, mud, or silt, may indicate flooding.
- Inspect the door speakers, windshield wipers, radio, air conditioner, and other electronics. They often won't work if there has been water damage.
- Beware of new or mismatched items in an older car, including new electrical components, seats, and carpeting that doesn't match the interior.
- Check for rust on screws in the console or areas where water normally doesn't reach.
- See if there is any obvious paint overspray indicating recent body damage.
- Check inside the seatbelt retractors by pulling the seatbelt all the way out and inspect for moisture, mildew or grime.
- Smell for a musty or moldy odor, particularly in the trunk.
"If there's any sign of flood damage, or if it looks fine but is from one of the states affected by Sandy, it's important to conduct an independent inspection of the vehicle before buying it," says McCormack. "In fact, it's a good idea to have any used car checked over before it's purchased."
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