ANDY'S CONSUMER TIP OF THE DAY: how to avoid buying a flooded vehicle

Published: Sep. 12, 2014 at 8:52 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 5, 2017 at 6:50 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Car-buying consumers are at great risk after weather events like Hurricane Harvey and the threat posed by Hurricane Irma. They're at risk that flooded vehicles will eventually flood the market.

By law, when a flood drowns cars on a retail or auction lot, the lot must total out those vehicles in coordination with its insurance company and brand those cars' titles as salvage titles in the name of the insurance company.

The late Tom Zimmer, a former National Insurance Crime Bureau investigator and long-time source of mine, demonstrated for me three years ago how states will print salvage titles in the insurance companies' names -- and in a different color.

 "A regular Tennessee title is going to be green," he demonstrated. "Notice how the (Tennessee salvage title) is blue."

The problem is the law has little control over how private individual sellers may brand a flooded car's title.

It also takes days, even weeks to secure a salvage title on a flooded vehicle. There's the flood itself, then the waiting to get a claims adjuster out to conduct an inspection, then the determination of loss and liability, then the generation of the title.

"There's a gap of time between the actual incident and the branding of the title, so basically, you are unprotected at that point until those titles are branded," said Stan Norton, managing partner of City Auto and dealer member of the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission.

Bottom line, you should never buy a car without proof of a clean title. Period.

If you insist on taking the risk of considering a car that has either a salvage title or no title at all, Zimmer said use your eyes -- and your nose -- to determine if it may be a flooded vehicle.

"Are there artificial air fresheners in there that are probably covering up the odor of mold?" he said. He also said look for sand, dirt or silt traces in the upholstery, on the floorboard and around the interior.

Chris Basso, public relations director for Carfax vehicle history reports, recommended before purchasing the car, have a reliable mechanic inspect the trunk, engine and spare tire well for water or debris. Look for condensation in the dashboard, headlights and taillights -- and look for excess rust on interior metal parts.

"You should rely on vehicle history reports, and you should absolutely get those," Norton said.

But vehicle history reports from the likes of Carfax and AutoCheck are only as reliable as the states and sellers who release title data to them. So again, if a seller cannot provide proof of a clean title, do not buy that car.

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