Car buyers beware
By Jim Poling
Published Sept. 21, 2017
Mopping up the messes of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma is happening hundreds of miles away but Canadian consumers need to take care that they don’t get soaked.
Flood-damaged goods from Texas and Florida can start showing up anytime and anywhere. Quick buck artists already are working to pass off damaged goods to unsuspecting buyers.
The area of greatest concern is the used vehicle market. There are estimates of 500,000 vehicles damaged in Texas, and probably that many again in Florida.
There are legal processes designed to protect buyers from cleaned up, water-damaged vehicles with serious hidden problems. There are unscrupulous people who find ways around the laws and sell flooded vehicles camouflaged as normal used cars or trucks.
A 2014 study by Carfax Inc., an online company supplying vehicle history reports, said that 800,000 vehicles on U.S. roads may have been subject to title washing schemes. A large number of those were autos damaged in floods.
Resale autos must have ownership titles that list a history of damage. Scammers, however, have found ways of altering, or washing, titles.
Flood vehicles often are transported well beyond a flood zone because distant buyers are less likely to think about water-damaged vehicles.
Carfax estimates that historically about one-half of vehicles damaged in flooding are resold. Some have been repaired and the flood damage noted on their titles but many others get sold through scammers.
“They [scammers] will buy them, they will make them look OK, and sooner or later some unsuspecting party is going to buy one and it will end up being a nightmare,” Jim Tolkan, an automotive dealers association president told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently.
U.S. used vehicles usually come to Canada for sale through honest dealers. Some might have been flooded and the damage and repairs noted and price adjusted to reflect that. There is a danger that some come through scams.
Here’s some advice, gathered from consumer reports and auto mechanics, that might be helpful to anyone considering buying a used auto from the United States. (Or, from Canada for that matter because several regions of the country have had major flooding this year).
It is best to have a used car you are considering inspected by a qualified mechanic. They know the hidden signs of water damage.
Water damage to autos can be much more than stained upholstery and musty odour. Water gets into mechanical systems, lubricants and electronics. Today’s vehicles are heavily dependent on delicate electronics that drive computerized systems.
Salt water of course causes corrosion problems that might not show up until months, or even years, later.
Seat mounting screws should be checked to see if they have been removed. Carpets cannot be dried properly without the seats being removed.
Look into difficult-to-clean places – gaps under the hood and between panels in the trunk. There might be mud stains or water lines in spots where they are difficult to remove.
Engines have all sorts of nooks and crannies where mud or stains are missed in a quick cleaning. A light, magnifying glass or mirror on a stick can help in looking for evidence of exposure to water.
There are areas in autos where unpainted screws are used, like under the dashboard. Any unpainted screws will show signs of rust if the vehicle has been submerged.
Drain plugs beneath the car or at the bottom of doors should be checked to see if they have been removed. Plugs are removed to drain flood water from inside the panels.
The reflectors or lenses on headlights and taillights sometimes show slightly visible water lines, solid evidence that the vehicle had been partially submerged.
Thoroughly searching a vehicle’s history is an important first step when looking to buy a used car.
There are plenty of online sites offering information about ways to protect yourself from damaged used auto scammers. Sites like Carfax.com and Autocheck.com provide vehicle histories at a cost. Carfax also has a flood damage site (https://www.carfax.com/press/resources/flooded-cars) with helpful information.
I know people who have had great luck buying used vehicles exported from the U.S. Like buying anything these days, you just have to be on top of all the ways to protect yourself.