Many states surrounding Massachusetts have experienced widespread storm surges and flooding. With that comes the warning that consumers should be on the lookout for the possibility of flood-damaged autos in the aftermath of such storms. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau more than 250,000 vehicles were damaged by Superstorm Sandy alone. And this estimate includes only insured losses.
In some cases the car is covered by an auto insurance policy. If the damage is great enough, the insurance company may “total” the car and pay for its actual cash value, less the policy’s deductible. However, in certain situations, the insured may choose to keep the car and receive its value less the salvage value. These autos could be for sale. Therefore, buyers beware! Cars suffering water damage from storms even after repairs and cleaning, can pose safety risks and may require substantial repairs in the future.
According to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, if an insurance company takes possession of the vehicle, the owner is required to apply for a Salvage Title within 10 days. If the owner retains possession, they may have the choice of applying for either a Salvage Title or an Owner Retained Title. An Owner Retained Title can only be issued if the vehicle has an active registration and can be legally driven. Similar rules apply in surrounding states. However, sellers can sometimes conceal damage by moving a vehicle and its title to another state, a practice known as “title washing”. This is how damaged cars may appear for sale in Massachusetts without any indication that they were affected by a storm elsewhere. Keep in mind that even new cars could have sustained flood damage.
Following are a few tips to consider when purchasing a vehicle you suspect could be flood damaged:
- Check to see if the vehicle is listed as flooded using VINCheck at http://www.nicb.org/
- Inspect thoroughly for signs of water damage, such as mud, stains or musty odors in the interior, trunk, and spare tire compartment
- Look for sand or silt under the carpets, floor mats, headliner cloth and behind the dashboard
- Look for moisture inside the seatbelt retractors
- Inspect the interior upholstery and door panels for fading
- Check for rust on screws in areas where water normally doesn’t reach
- Check the undercarriage for rust or flaking metal
- Consider inspecting the vehicle by a trustworthy mechanic
It is also good idea to trace the history of the vehicle and inspect the title and ownership papers. Through the Registry of Motor Vehicles, you can request a copy of either the RMV computer record of the previous owner(s), or copies of the actual title application and supporting documents. Detailed vehicle histories are also available from national databases such as CarFax, Autocheck or Consumer Guide Automotive.
Being aware is key!