Buyers who go to a salvage auction can be certain that a vehicle there has been the victim of some serious misfortune. And buyers can get more granular information by tracking the car’s Vehicle Identification Number, usually located on the dashboard and also listed on the title.
“The V.I.N. is a vehicle’s birth certificate and its death certificate,” said Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs at the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
That is not to say, however, that all car buyers can rest easy. There are some gaps in the system that let totaled vehicles slip through — and there are sneaky sellers out there trying to sell damaged vehicles — meaning that buyers still need to be vigilant.
The principal form of buyer protection is checking the title history, making sure that it has no record of being marked as salvage or beyond repairable. Prospective buyers can use the VIN to check titles using free services like the flood car database kept by Carfax, the online car seller of vehicle histories, or the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VINcheck. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, a Justice Department function, charges for access to databases incorporating more data sources.
The trouble is, those resources are limited, and not all cars have their information in the databases. The N.I.C.B. includes data only for cars covered by the insurance companies that support the organization — which adds up to about 90 percent of personal vehicle policies in the country, Mr. Scafidi said.
The website for the Justice Department system, meanwhile, notes that only 38 state motor vehicle title agencies are in full compliance with the Anti Car Theft Act of 1992, under which title data is to be reported to the federal system and its history verified before a new title is issued.
Consumer advocates like the Center for Auto Safety would like title check information to be easier for consumers to obtain. “We’d like to see all states give out that information free,” said Jason Levine, the center’s executive director. The group also supports making it free to access to the databases run by the Justice Department.
More concerning is the situation that not all states define salvage in the same way. Vehicles that have been in floods but have otherwise little apparent damage may be returned to the road without replacement of some electrical parts. That can lead to problems that take weeks or months to surface. Corrosion often takes time to become bad enough that connections are lost or short circuits emerge, so a car that seems otherwise undamaged may break down at a most inopportune time.
The lack of uniform standards among states can also lead to a maneuver called “title washing.” This happens when a seller transfers the ownership through states that will issue clean titles to vehicles once branded as salvage. While the rules have tightened, but there are still workarounds, including the use of mechanics’ liens to obtain a fresh title.
As a result of these gaps, Consumer Reports has suggested tips for identifying cars that may have spent time underwater. A buyer or mechanic should look for these telltale signs:
■ Caked-on mud and a musty odor from the carpets. New carpets in an older vehicle may be another red flag.
■ A visible water line on the lens or reflector of the headlights.
■ Mud or debris trapped in difficult-to-clean places, such as gaps between panels in the trunk and under the hood.
■ Rusty exposed screws under the dashboard. Unpainted metal in flood cars will show signs of rust.
■ Rubber drain plugs under the car and on the bottom of doors that have been removed. That may have been done to drain floodwater.
Also keep in mind that parts from the scrapped cars could well end up in yours, as in a situation where a body shop cuts corners in a collision repair by using parts from a scrapped car instead of new parts. A fender or hood that spent time immersed in fresh water might not be a problem, but a transmission that took a salt water bath could well turn up with bearing or seal failure.
While there are still loopholes through which flood vehicles reach unsuspecting buyers, legislation enacted after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy has improved consumer protection. Since 2012, California dealers offering used cars must obtain a report from the Justice Department system; if the vehicle has previously been branded as salvage, that information must be disclosed to consumers. Louisiana requires insurance companies that declare a car to be a total loss as a result of flood damage to apply for a certificate of destruction within 30 days.
Of course, there are those with the expertise to inspect a flood car and judge its level of usability. And the appeal of bargain prices — as little as 25 percent of the value of an equivalent undamaged vehicle — can be irresistible.
While any vehicle whose dashboard electronics were marinated in salt water should be scrapped, a car that had no more damage than rain-soaked carpets can deliver years of reliable service. The vital precaution is getting a detailed inspection by someone with mechanical expertise.
Among those who say they have taken the leap and been satisfied with the result: Jay Adair, the chief executive of Copart, the salvage auction company. He said he and his wife have both used repaired flood cars on a regular basis.