• Superstorm Sandy created a tsunami of flood cars.
  • Unscrupulous sellers will try to sell them to unsuspecting buyers.
  • Obtain an online car history of any suspicious used car.

If there's one thing we can count on after a devastating super storm like Sandy, it's that the used-car market will be flooded with water-damaged cars.

Scammers probably began dumping affected cars into the used-car inventory within days of Sandy's landfall.

Used-vehicle shoppers searching within a few hundred miles of the Northeast Coast should be particularly wary, but it's not just shoppers in the affected regions who should increase their vigilance. Savvy sellers will move damaged vehicles to unaffected states, where they will retitle the cars before foisting them on unsuspecting buyers. Like gas vapor seeping into a room, Sandy-damaged flood cars will find their way into every corner of the country.

Flood damage can ruin a vehicle in any number of ways, from eating away the electronics wiring to seizing up mechanical systems, and the damage may not reveal itself for months or even years. Corrosion and rust are insidious, often eating away at sheet metal and components from the inside out.

Obviously, not every used car coming out of Sandy-affected areas will be damaged, but many that are won't show outward signs of water trauma.

Buyer Beware

There are some precautions a used-car shopper can take to minimize, if not eliminate, the chances of buying one of these future rust buckets.

Depending on whether the seller is a licensed dealer or a private owner, duped buyers may have some legal recourse if, after purchase, their used car turns out to be flood damaged, but that's not guaranteed. Avoiding a flood-damaged vehicle ultimately falls to the used-car shopper, and the most effective way to avoid being scammed is to be alert to the danger and look for a few telltale signs.

Aggressively inspecting any used vehicle being considered for purchase is the most effective prescription for dodging one with terminal water damage.

This is best accomplished by a qualified mechanic; however, if a mechanic isn't available or you want to avoid the expense of a professional, you may be able to identify a problem vehicle yourself with a preemptive inspection.

What to look for

Although you won't be able to peek into every nook and cranny, there are some areas where obvious signs of damage lurk. Here are a few places to inspect and what to look for:

  • Check under the vehicle's carpets or floor covering for mud or rust, and don't forget the trunk.
  • Give the underside of the carpets a sniff test. Do they smell like mildew?
  • Mud and debris collect in hard-to-clean spaces, such as under the hood and in the trunk.
  • Rust on the heads of any exposed screws under the hood, around the doors or in the trunk indicates exposure to excess moisture.
  • Mud and debris on the underside of panels and brackets is another good sign the car has been under water.

If you suspect you are looking at a flood-damaged vehicle, the smart move is to just walk away. If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. The alternative is to spring for the cost of having a mechanic give it the once over.

One more thing

AutoTrader always recommends obtaining the history of every used car being considered. A number of online sites, such as CARFAX.com and AutoCheck.com, provide such reports for a nominal cost. Pay special attention to the vehicle's title history. CARFAX has a link to a dedicated "flood damage" site (www.flood.CARFAX.com ) that can be effective in rooting out flood-damaged cars.

What it means to you

Buying a used car is a big investment. A little vigilance up front about flood-damaged vehicles can save you from a big headache down the road.

author photo

Russ Heaps began covering the automotive industry in 1986, first overseeing the automotive pages of the Boca Raton News and then the Palm Beach Post in Florida. In 2001 he became managing editor of AMI Auto Week and NOPI Street Performance Compact magazines. Since leaving AMI he has freelanced his auto reviews and industry analysis to the Washington Times, Hispanic magazine, Journal-Register Newspapers, Bankrate.com, MyCarData.com, Interest.com, and others. He resides in Greenville, SC.

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