Experts warn Mainers about flood-damaged cars
LEWISTON — It's shiny, runs like a dream and the price is fantastically low. Frankly, you're pretty sure you've hit the used car jackpot.
But experts warn that some of the cars flooded during this fall's Hurricane Sandy are now starting to make their way onto the market.
In Maine, used vehicle laws are strict: Dealers must tell of flood damage, and out-of-state flood or salvage titles cannot be replaced with a clean Maine title. But there are also significant loopholes. Experts say it comes down to an old adage: Buyer beware.
That dream car? Might have been sitting under seawater for a week.
"By the time it gets to me (to inspect), it's too late. Usually somebody's already purchased it," said Mike Morin, owner of Mike Morin's Auto Center in Auburn.
An estimated 230,000 to 250,000 cars were damaged during the floods caused by Sandy, according to Chris Basso, spokesman for Carfax, a company that provides used car history reports for buyers and dealers. If past storms are any indication, he said, about half will return to the road, either in America or overseas. He believes one in five are on the road now.
Although they might look fine and run well for the moment, flooded cars can harbor a host of potential problems, particularly if they were flooded with salt water, as was the case with many Sandy cars.
"The cars literally rot from the inside out," Basso said. "And that's the danger. It may run well for the first few months, but sooner or later that water is going to start to break down the electrical, the mechanical and the safety systems of the car. You're really driving a ticking time bomb."
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 also led to flooded cars, but that storm hit southern states and many damaged vehicles didn't find their way as far north as Maine. Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and New York the hardest, and while those cars are being sent across the United States, experts say, they are more likely than Katrina cars to land in North East and Mid Atlantic states.
In Maine, potential buyers have some protection.
State law requires dealers to identify on the used car window sticker any "substantial damage," including water damage, even if it has been repaired. Damage is considered substantial if, once revealed, the buyer would pay less for the car or not buy it at all.
Maine also prohibits a car with an out-of-state flood or salvage title from receiving a clean Maine title. The secretary of state's office said any new Maine title would carry the same flood or salvage designation, warning potential buyers about significant damage. If the vehicle's owner said the title was missing or lost, officials said the owner would be told to go back to the original state to get a copy of the title there.
However, there are loopholes.
Maine law says dealers do not have to obtain a car's history for the window sticker if they bought it at an out-of-state dealers-only auction, or if it was repossessed and bought at a dealers-only auction, either in Maine or out of state. While Maine won't clear a flood or salvage title, other states will, and those cars could later end up here. And private sales aren't regulated like dealer sales in Maine, so a private seller can offer a car "as is."
Experts say there are some things Mainers can do to keep from getting hoodwinked:
• Find out as much as possible about the car's history, whether that's with a vehicle history report or a few simple questions for the seller.
"Ask the dealer where he got the vehicle," said Linda Conti, Maine assistant attorney general, consumer protection division.
• Look at the car closely. If it's been submerged, there may be waterlines in the trunk or engine compartment, condensation in the dashboard or headlights, signs of rust inside the car or brittle or cracking wires under the dash.
• Ask a trusted mechanic to inspect the car.
"That's the step, unfortunately, that most people do skip," Basso said. "It'll cost you, probably, $60 to $100 for that pre-purchase inspection, but when you're laying down $5,000, $10,000 or even $15,000 for a used car, that $100 is a small price to pay for a huge piece of mind that you get."
Officials with the secretary of state's office said the federal government gave their office the VIN numbers of cars totaled by insurance companies after Hurricane Katrina, but the office has not received VINs for Sandy cars and is not sure whether it will.
To help potential buyers identify flood cars from Sandy, Carfax has set up a free site at http://flood.carfax.com. However, the company maintains a general note on its website that damage isn't always reported or may not be reported to sources Carfax can access.
Used car buyers aren't the only ones who should be wary of a deal that seems too good to be true. The Maine Auto Recyclers Association said parts from once-submerged cars can also find their way into the market. Parts, like cars, can look good now, but fall apart later.
MARA Executive Director Bill Bell has simple advice for that.
"Know the dealer who you're buying it from," he said.