When Superstorm Sandy swept ashore in New Jersey (and many other places on the east coast on October 29, 2012), besides destroying many homes and communities, it also resulted in flooding of streets that submerged thousands of cars and trucks. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) there were approximately 250,000 cars damaged by Sandy with over 80% of them located in New York and New Jersey. Many of these water-damaged vehicles were salvaged and now are being put back up for sale. Here’s how it happens in New Jersey and you may want to check in your state (if your state is in the path of hurricanes or tropical storms) to see how they handle it.
If your car insurance company determines that it’s not economically feasible to repair your flood-damaged car, or if they declare your car a total loss, they’ll pay you the value of your car (less your deductible) under your auto policy’s comprehensive coverage. At that point, you’re required to surrender the title of the car to the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC).
If your vehicle has been flooded but can be repaired, or your insurance company won’t declare it a total loss, you have to amend your title in New Jersey to label your car as a “flood vehicle” and that designation has to carry forward no matter how many times the car is sold.
Since it’s illegal in New Jersey to drive a salvaged vehicle on a state road (unless you’re taking it to get inspected), salvaged vehicles can’t be registered. And it’s also illegal to sell a salvaged vehicle unless the car is either repaired and re-inspected (and passes the inspection) by the state’s MVC or it’s sold strictly as a salvage vehicle. But not everyone adheres to the rules and, like it or not, the reputation of people who sell used cars is not stellar to begin with. It’s very likely that there were people – like there are in every natural disaster that occurs in our country – who take advantage of or manipulate a tragedy into some kind of advantage for themselves. And that includes selling water-damaged cars to unsuspecting owners.
Damage from flood waters is not always obvious or may not manifest itself immediately. Electrical wiring could be damaged, the mechanical systems could be affected and water damage most likely will cause rust which won’t show up for a long time but is still occurring, whether you notice it or not.
According to the NICB, it’s not illegal to buy or sell what they call flood vehicles as long as everyone involved is aware of that. (That differs slightly from New Jersey’s policy on selling flood-damaged cars). To protect consumers from buying one of these cars, the New Jersey MVC and the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs has established a database that allows consumers to search by manufacturer and Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to determine whether the vehicle is a flood vehicle or not. The NICB has a similar database that lets you check by VIN to see if the car has been reported as a salvage vehicle.
No matter where you live, there are common sense things you can do when buying a used car after a storm or hurricane to make sure it’s not a salvage vehicle. Make sure the car doesn’t have a musty smell. Check under the mats to see if there’s mud or debris. Look to see if there’s rust damage in a place that wouldn’t normally be affected by water. See if there are water stains on the upholstery of the seats.
And the best thing of all you can do – whenever you buy a used car – is to have it inspected by a trusted mechanic. There’s a reason that we hear the phrase “let the buyer beware”. Because if you don’t check all the things you should, no one else will.