The first of about 25,000 vehicles cleaned up after being ruined by last September’s Hurricane Floyd are hitting used car lots across America.

Some sellers are not revealing the vehicles’ watery history.

Some buyers have already caught these shady dealers red-handed and got their money back. warned
in a story last November that these vehicles, then still covered with the muck and mire of the giant hurricane that slammed North Carolina, could find their way anonymously to a lot near you. That story gave readers extensive background information on what to do to avoid buying a car that had once been written off by a flood or some other catastrophic accident, and what to do if they were sold such a vehicle.

Could be anywhere
North Carolina attorney general Mike Easley says he is aware that many of the cars flooded by Floyd are being bought in North Carolina “and then transported throughout the United States for resale.”

Do your homework beforeyou step onto the car lot

Here are some steps you can take before plunking down cash for that used car:

  • If you can, get the car’s vehicle identification number. There are a number of companies that offer access to a national vehicle identification number database for a fee. Every vehicle manufactured since 1981 has a 17-character number (VIN), which identifies the year, make, model, body style, engine size, restraint system and place of manufacture of any given vehicle. We did a search and found a number of sites. Be careful to check the legitimacy of these companies with the Better Business Bureau or another consumer protection agency.
  • On the
    Kelley Blue Book site, you can do a free search to find out which vehicle identification numbers have been cited for things such as flood damage or odometer fraud. A more complete history report of these cars costs $19.50.
    Carfax has a similar service and car shoppers can order car history reports for $19.95.
  • North Carolina attorney general Mike Easley’s office has created a
    list of cars that were damaged in Floyd.
  • At the car lot, ask to see a copy of the dealer’s warranty before you buy.
  • Ask for the car’s maintenance record from the owner, dealer or repair shop.
  • Use your state’s lemon laws to your advantage.

“Unfortunately, once these vehicles leave North Carolina, sometimes the ‘flood’ designation is ‘washed’ from the title,” said Easley.

New figures show that about 75,000 vehicles were wrecked by Floyd’s floodwaters, says AAACarolinas spokesman Tom Crosby, and about a third of these are believed to be heading for the open market.

AAACarolinas and the North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association say most of the cars are being sold outside North Carolina.

Easley’s office says about a dozen complaints have already landed on his doorstep during the past few weeks from people who believe that they were sold cars once destroyed by Floyd’s floodwaters.

The dealer selling the vehicles had never revealed their wet pasts, said the complainants.

Attorney-general spokeswoman Cari Hepp said three of the vehicles that the new owners complained about had indeed been wrecked by the hurricane, and their buyers got their money back.

Check Floyd’s vehicle victims online
Easley’s office has created a list of cars that were water damaged in North Carolina (although some flooded cars may not have made the list.) Prospective buyers can also get a copy of the vehicle’s title from that site.

But complaints aren’t limited to North Carolina, says AAA’s Crosby. And, he says, cleaned up vehicles can be hard to spot.

“The key is vigilance,” he said. “A vehicle can leave this state and go through several auctions and the title can become very blurred.

“Be suspicious. If the upholstery is brand-new but the car is old, that may be a clue. If it smells or there is mud in places there shouldn’t be, that vehicle could have been flooded.

“Check the vehicle out as much as you can. Look at it’s ownership history, and check out any insurance claims made against it,” said Crosby. “And make sure you get a signed and witnessed record of the sale. That’s something you’ll need if you find out later it was a flood car and you want your money back.”

But, said Crosby, not all Floyd-flooded cars are bad deals. “If they are properly repaired, and you know their history, you may get a bargain.”

About 50,000 cars that Floyd submerged when it dumped 20 inches of rain on eastern North Carolina, killing 51 people and doing $6 billion worth of damage, have not come back to haunt buyers. They were either junked or broken down for parts.