Don't get tricked into buying a flood-damaged vehicle

You do not want to buy a flood damaged-vehicle. They're bad news. But people are cleaning up cars and trucks from Hurricane Sandy and passing them off like nothing happened.

A man in Spokane says he bought a used car a few months ago thinking everything was fine. By May, he says the headlights were failing, but nothing was wrong with the bulb. When he went to replace the headlight he discovered fried wires and connectors, eroded metal and lots of rust. A title check shows the vehicle came from New Jersey, home of Hurricane Sandy.

Even local used car dealers are on the lookout. Lucino Vargas, who runs a used car business in Seattle, says he routinely looks for all sorts of warning signs and checks titles through Carfax, before he buys cars from auto wholesalers. He often rejects cars he feels have been in bad accidents or damaged by water.

"I do not buy a car with rust because it's really hard to sell them," Vargas explained. "And I don't buy a car with a rebuilt title."

Rebuilt title means the vehicle title has been flagged has having been damaged in an accident and rebuilt. Vehicle salvagers, wholesalers and recyclers are required to report diminished value factors of vehicles they sell, on a national vehicle history website maintained by the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. Another good website, maintained by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, can help you find out if a vehicle has been salvaged, or reported as stolen.

AAA Washington's Dave Overstreet says when you buy a used car, it's vital to look past appearances. Open the doors. Open the trunk and hood. Open the glove compartment. Look closely for hidden giveaways.

"Look behind the dash board in the dash. Look for any rust that's in the metal hinge or any other metal bracing that's in the dash board," said Overstreet. "Pull back some molding to see if you see any sand or silt behind molding. Look under the seats to see of the seat bracketing is extremely rusty, It should not be."

A random check of local auto auction lots confirmed flood damaged vehicles have turned up in the Puget Sound region, but local used car dealers I talked to say they have not seen any signs of flooded cars -- yet. They acknowledge that anytime there's major flooding, damaged rust buckets end up in our state and often they get fooled. All the more reason for used car buyers to always get an independent inspection.

Insurance experts agree. They warn that some people go to extra lengths to hide flood damage and make sure vehicles are extra clean. If a vehicle is from a region that's had floods, hurricanes or tropical storms, check for a salt water smell and consider an electronics diagnosis to see if electronic components have been damaged. Yes, that costs money. The vehicle history checks will also cost you a few bucks. But spending that money before you buy- can help you avoid thousands in unexpected repairs.