(Long Island, N.Y.) Janine Drywater purchased a used truck for her 18-year-old daughter at a small, privately-owned dealership in Tulsa, Oklahoma about a year ago. The $2,500 price seemed to be a great bargain. The truck appeared to be in reasonable condition. It had a reasonable number of miles and very little noticeable damage. Two weeks later, her daughter placed a frantic call to her mother from the side of the highway at 10 p.m.
“Mom! I heard a loud, scary noise, and then the engine literally blew apart!”
What had seemed to be a great bargain had actually been a flood-damaged vehicle from Hurricane Irene.
“I never thought that a hurricane vehicle would be this far away from where it happened. I should have done my homework,” cried Mrs. Drywater. “I’ll never make that mistake again.”
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of thousands of flood-damaged used vehicles will soon hit the used car market. These cars will be transported across the nation to anyone, and everyone, who will buy them. Unscrupulous used car dealerships will purchase these vehicles for pennies on the dollar, refurbish them, and then resell them to unwitting consumers.
“It’s buyer beware when it comes to the damaged used car market,” said Alec Gutierrez, director of operations in the automobile valuation department at Kelley Blue Book. “You never know what’s going to happen. It’s like a ticking bomb.”
Vehicles damaged by Hurricane Sandy are dangerous for a number of reasons. Water can damage the electrical and mechanical systems that control everything from turn signals to brakes and airbags. In some cases, the engine can literally blow up. Likewise, flood water contains harmful filth and chemicals which permeate the ventilation and seats, resulting in the buildup of bacteria and mold.
Vehicles damaged by Hurricane Sandy can receive clean titles in a number of ways. Most salvaged automobiles are restored and resold through nationwide auctions. Salvage dealerships are provided with a full disclosure of previous damage and a vehicle history report. But these dealers can buy a car then take it to a new state where this information is not maintained. They can obtain a clean title and resell it elsewhere. When the vehicle is resold, the new customer won’t have a clue about its history.
Dealers can also attempt to forge the real title or fake a real one, a process that is known as “title washing” in the shady underbelly of the used car industry. It is a little-known practice that leaves many drivers, like Mrs. Drywater, stranded and alone.
Honest used car dealerships will likely raise their prices as the demand for reliable cars escalates to unprecedented levels. The increase is expected to be temporary, primarily due to the overall shortage of used cars on the market today.
Used car buyers should thoroughly inspect a vehicle before making a purchase. Check the VIN number with CarFax and the National Registry. Look for evidence of discoloration in the fabric, carpet or upholstery, and see if any material has been replaced. Check for flaky, dry or brittle electrical wires, rust or soot in the engine bay or trunk, and an overly perfumed, mildewy, or musty smell overall.
“Good used cars will still be available after Hurricane Sandy,” says Gutierrez. “People just need to be wise about their purchases, and expect to pay a few hundred dollars more for the time being.”