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I was listening to the “Car Doctor Ron Ananian” on WOR Radio, the other day and he was explaining that cars damaged by Hurricane Sandy would be “flooding” the market. A reconditioned car that has been previously flooded will seem fine, may run well for a few months, but then over time electrical systems and computer modules will show the results of corrosion and fail, and you will see more and more problems and it will become a money pit.

How are these cars being resold?

The insurance companies totals these flood-damaged cars, pays the insured, and “brands” the title on these cars indicating the type of loss (Salvage, Rebuilt Wreck, Flood Victim), and takes ownership of the vehicles. These vehicles are taken to insurance auctions. Usually the buyers are legitimate businesses like body shops and car dealers. But some are unscrupulous vehicle rebuilders that also own “chop shops.”

These vehicle rebuilders will buy these flood-damaged cars with high end names (Lexus, Mercedes, Cadillac) at the lowest possible prices and then have them rebuilt as cheaply as possible. Then these cars are resold in the auction circuit. Their modus operandi is to sell them in places as far as possible from the hurricane so as not to raise any suspicions from the dealer or the retail customer. The victims are the dealers and retail customers who didn’t run a title check through a reputable service like Car Fax or AutoCheck.

So you think all you have to do avoid the problem is to do a title check? Wrong. I found out from the Car Doctor that there are some disreputable businesses who will pick up these cars at the insurance auction, have them cheaply reconditioned, take them over state lines where they are re-registered over and over, eventually the insurance brand is removed or washed from title. That’s where the term “title washing” comes from. Once a clean title is issued, the car will be sold in the auction circuit under false pretenses.

I hadn’t heard of “title washing” before so I was totally shocked when I heard that this was going on.

So how can you or I avoid getting scammed?

How can people detect that a reconditioned car was in a flood?

One way you can avoid getting a flood-damaged car is to hire a professional to do a pre-purchase inspection who knows what clues to look for. He will do an electrical test and can ascertain if any of the circuits are damaged. If you don’t have trustworthy mechanic, Alliance Inspection Management (AiM) can provide that service. It is now in the process of inspecting hundreds of Sandy vehicles. Another company that does this type of pre-purchase inspection is inspectmyride.com.

The car may have water damage if you see water lines in the engine compartment, door jamb and the trunk. Another place to check is the wheel well for the spare tire. Look for water lines and/or rust. Look for green crust-like substance in the electrical plugs and junction. Look under the seat and check for rust where the seats are mounted to the floor. Also check to see if the carpet is either loose or wrinkly. The carpet may be sloppily put back in place after car was repaired. An experienced technician would look under seats and dashboard for silt or mud — another sign that the car was in a flood.

An experienced technician would also check to see if the equipment in the car matches what it’s supposed to come with. If it doesn’t come with specified engine or a set of equipment for that specific model, you should question why. Could be a sign that the car was rebuilt.

Other signs that the car was submerged under water: milky engine oil, milky power steering fluid, and automatic transmission fluid that looks has strawberry milkshake color.

According to the Car Doctor Ron Ananian, cars and car parts damaged by Katrina were in circulation for several years after that weather catastrophe. Caveat Emptor.