State to residents: Keep an eye out for flood-damage vehicles

KALIHI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Flood car resales were a big scandal on the mainland after several big storms.

Although it's not illegal to sell as long as the car's title indicates the car has a damage history, scammers have been known to hide the damage.

"The concern is that a car may have been through a flood damage event, be patched up, and sent to Hawaii for resale to an unwitting Hawaii consumer," said Dara A. Loy-Goto, complaints and enforcement officer for The Regulated Industries and Complaints Office.

However, well-known auto mechanic George Nitta says that after historic flooding on Kauai and Oahu — he's calling insurance companies looking to buy flooded cars.

"There's money that can be made from this disaster," said Nitta.

After Hurricane Iniki, he bought six flood-damaged cars for $200 dollars a piece. He replaced all the electronics, pulled out the interiors and sanitized them sold them for $6,000 each.

"It's not irresponsible because I'm telling the guy who wants to buy it what happened to it, and he'll drive it around check it out. Take his mechanic. There's nothing wrong," Nitta said.

Nitta doesn't recommend buying a flood car except with help from a trustworthy mechanic, but it's clear buyers should be extra cautious to avoid getting soaked.

Severe flooding in other states can impact Hawaii consumers.

Following a disaster, flood-damaged cars may be shipped and sold in other states, far away from where the original damage occurred.  RICO offers these tips as a start for consumers to consider before purchasing a used car.

Helpful Tips About Flood-Damaged Cars from The Regulated Industries and Complaints Office:

  1. Go over every inch of the car.  Check hard to reach spots, like engines and trunks, for water lines, residual mud, or debris; remove the spare tire and check in the base of wheel wells; open all doors and check for corrosion where the door meets the body; use a mirror to check the undercarriage of the car and check seat springs for rust.
  2. Listen closely.  Working electronics in cars are more important than ever before.  Listen for unexpected sounds, including a sound system (including any of the speakers) that are stat-icky or distorted.  You can even very carefully and gently bend any electrical wires under the dash to see if they're brittle.
  3. Use your nose.  Flood damaged vehicles can smell of mold or mildew.  Experts say it can be difficult to completely get entirely get rid of the smell.  The best way to test is to sit inside for a while with the vehicle's doors and windows tightly closed.  A strong smell of cleaning chemicals or air freshener may be masking a less agreeable odor.
  4. Run the car for a while, including the air conditioner or heater.  Headlights, taillights, and instrument panels may appear foggy if water has accumulated inside.
  5. Ask to see title and registration.  A title or vehicle registration may be "branded."  Types of brands include "salvage," "rebuilt," or even "flood" depending on the state or local municipality the vehicle came from.  If carpeting or upholstery doesn't match the age of the car, ask why.
  6. Consider having a licensed mechanic check the vehicle over.  Ask the mechanic to inspect brake and wheel components for silt or mud.  (The mechanic may need to remove wheels to do so.)
  7. Do your homework. Use the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System's online tool to check vehicle history.  And, the National Insurance Crime Bureau's Vehicle Identification Number check system.  While information on these websites may not be comprehensive, they may be a good start.

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