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Watch out for flood-damaged vehicles from Hurricane Sandy

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Cars damaged by Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, may become the used-car-buyer's nightmare of 2013. As a result of the flooding on the east coast, it is estimated that tens of thousands of vehicles sustained severe water damage. Such water damage can make a vehicle's electrical system, including airbag sensors, prone to failure. Based on experience with flood-damaged vehicles associated with Hurricane Katrina, it is very likely that many states - including Minnesota - will soon begin to see flood-damaged vehicles enter the market for sale, titling or registration.

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The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) is designed to protect consumers from concealed vehicle histories. Consumers can look up a vehicle through the NMVTIS website at www.vehiclehistory.gov/nmvtis_consumers.html with the vehicle identification number (VIN).

The NMVTIS Junk, Salvage and Insurance Total Loss (JSI) program requires insurance companies under federal law, to report to NMVTIS any vehicle that they deemed to be a total loss.

However, the requirement to report to NMVTIS is on a 30-day cycle. Therefore, it is possible that flood-damaged vehicles may be presented for titling or registration and a NMVTIS check may not show a report by an insurer because it has not yet been reported.

· Minnesota law requires a dealer to disclose in writing when a new motor vehicle has sustained damage and when the dealer's cost of repairs exceeded 4 percent of the manufacturer's suggested retail price, or $500, whichever is greater.

State law also requires the seller to disclose in writing whether a late-model vehicle (six or more model years old) has sustained damage in excess of 80 percent of its actual cash value.

Minnesota brands flood-damaged vehicles when declared a total loss by an insurer or when the repairs exceed more than 80 percent of the vehicle's fair market value.

If the vehicle is titled in Minnesota and is more than six model years old, the vehicle is exempted from salvage status, so the title of a damaged vehicle may not always show a brand. Other states may have different laws regarding vehicle branding.

Be on the lookout for the telltale signs of flood damage when shopping for a used car. Vehicles that were partially or totally immersed by Sandy may soon show up in Minnesota following insurance settlements with the original owners. Once a vehicle has been cleaned cosmetically the flood damage can be difficult to detect.

"Vehicles that look clean might not have been inspected by a professional for mechanical and electrical performance," warns Patricia McCormack, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Driver and Vehicle Services Division. "Hidden damage can cause an owner serious problems weeks or even months later."

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) suggests car buyers inspect vehicles for signs of flood damage:

· Look under the carpet in the trunk and under the seats. Evidence of dampness, rust, mud, or silt, may indicate flooding.

· Inspect the door speakers, windshield wipers, radio, air conditioner, and other electronics. They often won't work if there has been water damage.

· Beware of new or mismatched items in an older car, including new electrical components, seats, and carpeting that doesn't match the interior.

· Check for rust on screws in the console or areas where water normally doesn't reach.

· See if there is any obvious paint overspray indicating recent body damage.

· Check inside the seatbelt retractors by pulling the seatbelt all the way out and inspect for moisture, mildew or grime.

· Smell for a musty or moldy odor, particularly in the trunk.

"If there's any sign of flood damage, or if it looks fine but is from one of the states affected by Sandy, it's important to conduct an independent inspection of the vehicle before buying it," says McCormack. "In fact, it's a good idea to have any used car checked over before it's purchased."

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