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Watch out for flood-damaged used vehicles in the Washington, D.C., area

Flooded Cars Look Out for DamageWith thousands of vehicles in a Monday storm, which released a month’s worth of rain in an hour, flood damaged vehicles in the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area could run in the hundreds.

“While, hopefully, these vehicles will have their titles marked flood damaged and go to salvage yards, many will likely re-enter the market as used cars,” said Jack Gillis, the Consumer Federation of America’s executive director and author of “The Car Book.”

Because of the computerization, electronics, and sophisticated safety technology found in today’s vehicles, it’s critical that you avoid getting stuck with one of these lemons, Gillis said.

“Looks can be deceiving – with a nice clean up, these water infested vehicles, may actually look pretty good – which means knowing how to identify a flooded vehicle is critical,” he said. “When it comes to buying a car, three out of four of us buy used.”

By following these tips, consumers can protect themselves from purchasing a vehicle that can put themselves and their families at risk:

  1. Check the VIN, vehicle identification number, which is located on the driver’s side of the dashboard, visible through the windshield, by going to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System established by the U.S. Department of Justice. You’ll have to pay a small fee for the information, but it’s the most comprehensive data base. You can also check with the National Insurance Crime Bureau or CarFax, both currently offering free flood history information. Even if the database has no flood information, beware, as fraudsters have ways of getting around VIN registration information or it may not have been reported.
  2. Use your nose. Beware if the vehicle smells musty or damp or if you smell some kind of air freshener. Close up the windows and run the air conditioner and check for a moldy smell.
  3. Look for dirt, mud, and water stains. Check the carpets, seat upholstery, and cloth lining inside the roof. If you see any dirt or mud stains, beware. Feel under the dashboard for dirt or moisture and look in the glove box, ashtray, and other compartments for moisture or stains. If you see a straight stain line either on the inside of the door panel, engine compartment, or trunk – watch out. That’s probably how high the water went in the vehicle. Tip: If the carpeting, seat coverings, or headliner seem too new for the vehicle, that’s a sign that they may have been replaced due to flood damage. 
  4. Listen for crunch. Pull the seats forward and back and try all of the safety belts. If you’re looking at an SUV with folding seats, try folding them all. Listen for the “crunchy” sound of sand or dirt in the mechanisms or less than smooth operation. 
  5. Check the spare tire or inflator area. Look for mud, sand, or stains on the spare tire or jack equipment or in the well under the spare tire. Check under the trunk carpet for a rigid board and look to see if it’s stained or has water damage.
  6. Power up. Be sure to try all the power options including windows, locks, seats, moon roof, automatic doors, wipers, window washers, lights, and air conditioning system. If any don’t work, sound funny, or operate erratically, beware. And don’t forget the sound system. Try out the radio, CD player, and Bluetooth connectivity. Adjust the speakers front and back and side to side to listen for any crackling or speaker failure. 
  7. Check for rust or corrosion. Look around the doors, in the wheel wells, under the seats, under the hood and trunk, and inside the engine compartment. 
  8. Look under the hood. Look at the air filter. It’s often easy to check and will show signs of water damage. Check the oil and transmission fluid. If they look milky or have beads of water, watch out. 
  9. Take a test drive and listen for unusual engine or transmission sounds and note any erratic shifting and acceleration. Set the cruise control to see if it’s working properly. 
  10. Check out the head and tail lights. Look closely to see if there is any water or fogging inside. Do the same with the dashboard. Are any of the gauges foggy or containing moisture droplets?

Follow these steps and you’ll be able to save yourself a lot of trouble that a water-damaged vehicle will cause.


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