How to avoid buying a flooded used car

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If you live in a flood-prone area, you have to worry about your car ending up underwater. If you live anywhere else, you have to worry about somebody else’s car ending up underwater — at least you do if you buy one of those flooded cars and don’t know it.

It happens more often than you think.

Thanks to the recent hurricanes hitting the nation Katrina and Rita many more vehicles have joined the water-initiated.

An estimated 571,000 vehicles have been destroyed by water due to the two storms, says Chris Basso, media relations manager for Carfax, a company that tracks vehicle histories.

“About half of those vehicles will end up on the road again,” says Basso. In many cases, he says, no one bothers to warn potential buyers of the cars’ liquid history, or buyers simply purchase these vehicles unaware.

And even if you’re confident you can spot a car that’s been flooded and the fact is that you probably can’t used-car lots also house cars that have been totaled in wrecks or have been officially declared lemons. A dealer might not mention that, either.

Consider this statistic: Annually, about 2.5 million cars are damaged so badly in accidents they are declared a total loss. One million of them are repaired and put back on the road and some end up on a used-car lot near you.

Fortunately, checking out a car before you buy it just got easier, thanks to a collaborative effort between FEMA and Carfax. Armed with your prospective car’s vehicle identification number (VIN), you can find out if a salvage or flood title was ever issued for that car, and whether it was last registered in a FEMA-declared disaster area. Simply enter your car’s 17-digit VIN into the Carfax ‘flood damage’ search field.

So if you’re in the market for a used car and prefer one that never spent any time underwater, there are some steps you can take to minimize the damage when the flood recedes.

  • If you can, get the car’s VIN. A number of companies offer access to a national vehicle identification number database for a fee. Every vehicle manufactured since 1981 has a VIN that identifies the year, make, model, body style, engine size, restraint system and place of manufacture of any vehicle.
  • You can do a free search to find out which vehicle identification numbers have been associated with flood damage, odometer fraud or other problems from Carfax. A more-complete history report of these cars costs $19.99, or $24.99 for 30-day access to unlimited Carfax history reports.
  • 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.
  • Take the car for a test drive.
  • Take a whiff and inspect carefully. If you smell mold or mildew, notice that the carpet’s been replaced or see rust or waterlines around your spare tire wheelbase, that’s a good indicator your car’s been flooded, says Basso.
  • “Most importantly,” Basso says, “get a certified mechanic to look at the car.”

Bankrate editorial assistant Leslie Hunt contributed to this story.

— Updated: Oct. 27, 2005