How to spot a flooded vehicle for sale

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The Mid-South dodged the damage of Harvey and Irma. Jose and Maria barely made our radar.

But Mid-Southerners are still dealing with the legacy of Katrina, Sandy and neighborhood flash floods everywhere:  flooded vehicles for sale.

It only took a week for the WMC Action News 5 Investigators to find one. It sat for sale on the lot of EZ Auto Sales, 2747 Lamar Avenue. The car is a 2013 Chevrolet Impala. Its CARFAX history report reveals it's branded as "flood damaged" with a "rebuilt title." The report indicated it was damaged in a flood event in Centreville, Mississippi, sometime in 2016.

Yet EZ Auto Sales dealer Song Kim would not let me see its title. "I have no reason to show you the title," Kim said.

"A car-buyer has every reason to see the title," said Kenny Mash, auto fraud investigator for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). "The title is actually the birth certificate of the car. It's the key to its history. Always ask to see the title. Check it for a brand and for the odometer mileage."

Title records and histories are what enabled the vehicle history company CARFAX to determine 16,900 flooded vehicles are either on the roads or for sale by private sellers or car lots in the Mid-South:

Arkansas: 3,500

Mississippi: 7,000

Tennessee:  6,400

Mash explained how Tennessee issues different colored titles based on a vehicle's history:

* GREEN. Mash said a clean Tennessee title will be green, with the vehicle's ID number (VIN), purchase date and the "actual mileage."

* FLOOD-BRANDED GREEN TITLE. A green Tennessee title that is flood-branded will disclose the words "flood vehicle" right on the document. If it's flood-branded, but titled green, the vehicle has been deemed repaired and safe to drive.

Stan Norton, dealer partner with City Auto and officer with the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission, said if the tile is flood-branded, look first for the box that indicates the state from which it came. "Over the last ten years, most flood activity has been in three primary states: Texas, Mississippi or Florida," Norton said. "That doesn't mean you can't buy a used car that came from those states, but those are the states you need to be leery of. Check the vehicle's CARFAX report to be sure."

* BLUE. Mash said a blue Tennessee title is a salvage title. If the salvage title number starts with "S1," it was damaged in a collision. If it starts with "S2," it was damaged in a flood event. A vehicle with a blue, flood-branded salvage title was indeed damaged, yet it was deemed repairable. The vehicle can be sold for driving purposes.

* RED. A red title is a non-repairable title. If its number starts with "N2," it has been submerged in saltwater. The vehicle can only be sold for parts.

"If it's blue, it can be rebuilt. If it's red, it can never go back on the road to be driven," Mash said.

That flooded Impala on the EZ Auto Sales lot should have a blue title, based on its CARFAX report. I told Kim, "I just wanted to see if it is a blue, rebuilt title because that would go a long way to reassure our viewers that even though this is a flooded vehicle, it has been properly titled for re-sale."

Kim properly allowed us to inspect the vehicle for flood damage, but he continually refused to show us the one thing every car-buyer has a right to see: a vehicle's title. "I'm not interested," said Kim. "If you were buying the car, I'd show it to you, but I'm not showing you the title."

If you're shopping a used vehicle, you have the right to see its title before signing the deal. Ask to see it. Then ask to inspect the vehicle for flood damage. Even better, ask to have your own certified, reputable mechanic inspect it for flood damage before purchase. If the dealer or seller won't let you do that, walk away.


* Any person selling a flood vehicle is required by law prior to the sale of the vehicle to disclose such to the purchaser. Further, once titling the vehicle, the purchaser will receive a branded vehicle title indicating the vehicle's salvage history. Having such a title will substantially impact the value of that vehicle for further resale.

* Anyone attempting to purchase a vehicle should be on the look-out for indicators of a flood vehicle, such as a musty smell, damp carpets, or mud/silt under the seats, and should attempt to find the vehicle's history prior to purchasing.

* Use a reputable title check service, such as the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, to check the vehicle history. If you find that it was last titled in a flood-damaged area, you should ask a lot of questions before making a decision. Keep in mind that title check companies are only as good as the information they collect from other sources. Some of the sources that they collect data from may be delayed in pushing their data to their system.

* Remember that a vehicle's flood history may take up to 30 days or longer to post on traditional consumer reporting sites. As such, the commission recommends individuals purchase motor vehicles from a licensed motor vehicle dealer, which they can verify at or with their state's motor vehicle commission or dealer licensing agency.

* Because the vehicle could appear to be in good shape, even if it has significant electrical and corrosion issues, it's important to always have a trusted mechanic inspect a vehicle before purchasing it.

* Be aware that there will be many recreational and power sport-type vehicles that have been damaged as a result of the recent storms. Look for the signs of flooding and saltwater damage before purchasing them.

* Keep in mind that there are lawful ways of reselling previously damaged vehicles. "Rebuilt vehicles" can be repaired and sold as long as they comply with the applicable laws and titling.

* "Saltwater damaged" vehicles are non-repairable but can be dismantled, and the parts can be sold lawfully through a licensed dismantler/recycler.

* If you suspect that a licensed dealer has sold you a vehicle with a salvage history and failed to disclose it, you may file a complaint with your state's motor vehicle commission.

* Your state commission is not responsible for collecting or enforcing any refunds from unscrupulous sales, but may take disciplinary action resulting in potential civil penalties or revocations of dealer licenses.

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