Superstorm Sandy flooded cars: Assessing the risk

Threat to consumers may be minimal, but caution urged

ORLANDO, Fla. - Since the Superstorm Sandy struck more than a month ago, the Internet has been buzzing with news that cars inundated with water will inundate the nation's used car market.  While that isn't necessarily true, industry experts are urging consumers to be careful.

"Consumers should be aware that some businesses and individuals may try to sell salvaged and flood-damaged cars without revealing the vehicle history," said Corri Cottingham, purchasing manager for CarMax, the nation's largest retailer of used cars.  "Flood-damaged cars are not structurally or mechanically sound, but could be re-titled and sold to unsuspecting buyers."

CarMax offers ten tips for identifying a vehicle with possible flood damage.

  1. Check for a moldy smell inside the car and feel the carpet for dampness
  2. Be suspicious of an older car with a brand new interior or carpeting
  3. Check for rust under the brake or gas pedals
  4. Look for dirt or rust under the dashboard and floor mats
  5. Inspect the bolts and screws under the seats for evidence of rust
  6. Check the undercarriage for excessive rust
  7. Check inside the trunk, under the carpet and in the spare tire well area for rust, dirt or sand
  8. Look for corrosion, water marks, or a thin brown line on the exterior of the vehicle
  9. Check to see if the electrical system works
  10. Check the VIN number with AutoCheck or Carfax to see whether a flood claim has been filed or a salvage title has been issued on the vehicle.

Most reputable dealers will let you go through all the steps necessary to confirm the vehicle's integrity. Start simply by turning on the ignition. Listen to how the engine turns over.  Pay careful attention to the dashboard.

"If you see no warning lights, no ABS, no airbag, anything like that, that's a bad thing," said Angelo Cusimano, a buyer for the Orlando CarMax store.  All the lights should go on, then go off, just as they would in a new car.

Cusimano also said buyers should do a simple door check; open and close the doors several times in a row.  "When water gets trapped inside the door you can sometimes hear it sloshing back and forth," he explained.

As for New York or New Jersey flood-damaged cars hitting the Orlando market, Cusimano said the threat is real but not necessarily imminent.  "Those cars are going to make it to an auction somewhere, and a guy from Florida is going to be at an auction up there because he knows the cars are cheap," Cusimano said.  "He's going to purchase that car, put it on a transporter, and take it wherever."

The Associated Press recently reviewed insurance claims data and found that tens of thousands of vehicles, not hundreds of thousands as was predicted, were damaged during Superstorm Sandy.  Vehicle history reports will now state if a vehicle was registered in impacted areas prior to Sandy. 

Experts, however, caution against relying on those reports, alone, when buying a used car.  The reports are not always up-to-date, Cusimano warned.  Local 6 recommends that consumers have an experienced mechanic fully inspect a vehicle before they make a purchase.

Copyright 2012 by All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.