State warns consumers about hurricane-damaged vehicles

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is warning consumers to be on the lookout for used cars damaged by the floods of Hurricane Sandy that may be put up for sale in Wisconsin.

The agency estimates tens of thousands of vehicles sustained severe water damage during the superstorm. Such water damage can make a vehicle’s electrical system, including airbag sensors, prone to failure.

Based on past experiences with flood-damaged vehicles associated with Hurricane Katrina, it is very likely that many states,  including Wisconsin, will soon begin to see flood-damaged vehicles enter their used vehicle markets for sale, titling or registration, the department warned.

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) is designed to protect consumers from concealed vehicle histories, but the system is not. Consumers can check a vehicle’s history through the NMVTIS website and doing some checking in advance of purchasing a vehicle by getting the vehicle identification number (VIN) and asking to see the title.

“Vehicles that look clean might not have been checked out professionally for mechanical and electrical performance,” warns Lynne Judd, administrator of the Division of Motor Vehicles. “Hidden damage can cause an owner serious problems weeks or even months later.”

Signs of flood damage include:

* A musty smell. Even if the car was cleaned well, the odor will return if the windows are rolled up, and the car is left in the sun for a few hours.
* Water-spotted upholstery.
* Dirty taillights. Even a professional cleaner may not remove the taillight lenses and mud will be on the inside.
* Silt around the air filter. Remove the filter and tap it lightly to tell.
* Discolored or painted hood insulation. Unless the insulation was replaced, there will be mud caked under it.
* Brittle wiring.
* Rust in unexpected places.

“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,” Judd said. “In fact, it’s a good idea to have any used car checked over.”

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