It has become predictable. First come the hurricane and flooding. Then come the dire warnings about waterlogged cars being put up for sale without any notice about flood damage.
This year’s big storms have flooded a huge number of vehicles — hundreds of thousands, if not the half-million that were initially feared. But with some basic due diligence — and a discerning eye — you can usually avoid buying a water-damaged car from an unscrupulous seller.
Most newer vehicles hit by the storms will be written off as total losses by the insurance companies. The owner will receive a check, and the insurance company will take possession of the vehicle, reporting it to searchable databases.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau said this week that nearly 270,000 insurance claims related to Hurricane Harvey vehicle damage had been processed, and nearly another 70,000 for Hurricane Irma. It is not clear how many of those claims will be declared total losses.
Cars that are totaled by the insurance company go to a salvage auction company. Insurance Auto Auctions, based in Illinois, listed an inventory of 46,000 flood vehicles on its website early this week, although the number was not broken down by storm. Copart, a salvage auction company that processes three million cars a year from 200 locations around the world, said it had gathered more than 30,000 Harvey cars at two sites in Texas as of a week ago.
Buyers who go to a salvage auction can be certain that a vehicle there has been the victim of some serious misfortune. And buyers can get more granular information by tracking the car’s Vehicle Identification Number, usually located on the dashboard and also listed on the title.
“The V.I.N. is a vehicle’s birth certificate and its death certificate,” said Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs at the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
That is not to say, however, that all car buyers can rest easy. There are some gaps in the system that let totaled vehicles slip through — and there are sneaky sellers out there trying to sell damaged vehicles — meaning that buyers still need to be vigilant.
The principal form of buyer protection is checking the title history, making sure that it has no record of being marked as salvage or beyond repairable. Prospective buyers can use the VIN to check titles using free services like the flood car database kept by Carfax, the online car seller of vehicle histories, or the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VINcheck. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, a Justice Department function, charges for access to databases incorporating more data sources.