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Attorney general: Hurricane Matthew may leave owners selling damaged cars, trucks

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Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens (AP)

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens is advising consumers who are buying used cars to be wary of vehicles that might have suffered flood damage as the result of Hurricane Matthew.

Flood-damaged vehicles occasionally end up on used car lots. Sometimes the vehicle’s title will indicate “salvage” or “totaled,” but sometimes dishonest dealers re-title the vehicle in another state and fail to disclose the damage on the vehicle’s title as required.

Jack Knight, owner of Knight’s Car Store, 1321 Martha Berry Blvd., said he didn’t think any of the dealers in the Rome area would knowingly sell a flood-damaged car. Knight said Hurricane Matthew created a lot of problems for dealers in North Carolina and South Carolina.

“We won’t buy one,” Knight said. “That will show up on an AutoCheck or Carfax report.”

Knight said unscrupulous sales agents would most likely attempt to move flood-damaged vehicles very quickly, before the data can show up on AutoCheck or Carfax.

“We’re very conscientious when we buy cars that they have clean titles,” said Tom Sipp, owner of Sipp-Rome Motor Sales, 801 Shorter Ave.

Sipp said it would be more likely for a person to sell a flood-damaged vehicle directly to another person rather than trying to sell it to a dealer.

“They could sell that car and not disclose it,” Sipp said. “They should always buy their cars from reputable sources.”

If a vehicle’s body, engine, transmission or mechanical parts have been submerged it will probably have electrical problems, and the brakes, airbags and computer system may be impaired. Knight said some vehicles have as many as 28 computer systems onboard.

Knight said vehicles, which have been exposed to water for multiple days, will ultimately experience excess rust issues.

There are several things that you can do to avoid buying a flood-damaged vehicle:

  • Check the vehicle identification number (VIN). Auto insurers, salvage pools that auction off totaled cars, and junkyards, recyclers and rental car companies in all 50 states will use the VIN number to report total-loss vehicles within 30 days. The VIN number can sometimes be found underneath the hood, on the dash, on the frame of the door or on the title itself.
  • Look at the title. Check to see whether the car has been branded as “flood,” “junk,” “salvage,” “rebuilt” or “reconstructed.”
  • Look for signs of flood damage. A strong detergent smell inside the car or in the engine may indicate that someone is trying to mask a mildew smell. Rust and metal flaking are another red flag. Check the upholstery, dashboard, glove compartment, trunk, inner doors, engine area and under the seats and carpeting for mud or silt. Test and retest the ignition, lights, wipers, air conditioner, heater and all accessories.
  • Have the vehicle thoroughly examined by an independent mechanic before you sign a contract or exchange any cash.

Associate Editor Doug Walker contributed to this report.