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Before buying a used vehicle, make sure it's not flood-damaged

After Hurricane Florence, the Pennsylvania Insurance Department and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) issued a warning to consumers to be wary of deals that seem too good to be true. An estimated 40,000 were flooded during Florence and they could end up on the market across the country. As many or more have been damaged in Hurricane Michael and from the recent catastrophic flooding in Central Texas.

The first thing to know is that flood-damaged vehicles sold in Pennsylvania should be sold on a salvage title. These vehicles have undergone an enhanced vehicle safety inspection and are issued with a "flood" or "reconstructed flood" brand, according to the Pennsylvania Insurance Department.

These salvaged vehicles are legal to buy, but there are insurance implications, according to the Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner. Insurance companies will be aware of the salvage title and may pay out far less on future claims than they would if the vehicle had not been flood damaged.

That's assuming you can even get insurance. Some companies aren't willing to write comprehensive and collision policies on flood-damaged vehicles. This is generally because they can't be sure of the vehicle's true condition or value.

The more serious threat to the consumer, however, is a flood-damaged vehicle that has not been issued a salvage title. Instead, these are often resold by the unscrupulous as a typical used car. It's only down the road that you may discover serious problems with the car.

How to check for flood damage in a vehicle

The first thing to do is check with the federal government' National Motor Vehicle Titling Information System, which allows you to research your vehicle's history for a small fee to a data provider. You can also get this information from a commercial provider such as Carfax. Even if no salvage title is present, the information provided will often include indications that a vehicle has been flooded or totaled out.

After checking for problems on the title, inspect the vehicle itself. Flooding leaves signs that can be hard to hide, such as:

  • Water stains, mud, sand or mold under the floor mats, on the bottom of the seats, under the dashboard and inside the roof cloth.
  • Rust inside the car.
  • Musty odors in the interior or trunk, especially when running the AC or heat.
  • Excess fog or moisture in interior or exterior lights or windows.
  • Mud or grit under the hood or in the spare tire compartment. In the engine compartment, check under wires and boxes and in hidden areas.
  • Oxidation -- white powder or small, pitted holes -- under the hood.
  • Brittle wires under the hood or behind the dashboard.

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