Superstorm Sandy has given car shoppers another 230,000 reasons to be wary.
That's the number of cars the insurance industry estimates were damaged or destroyed by Sandy's floods and winds. Unknown numbers of them will reach the used-car market as soggy lemons harboring electrical gremlins and corrosion time bombs, experts say.
Cars declared total losses by insurers are reported as such to state motor vehicle departments and usually are sold to dismantlers to be stripped for usable parts. But some are salvaged for resale. As a warning to prospective buyers, their titles are supposed to be stamped as "salvage" or, in certain states, including New York, "flood."
But the National Automobile Dealers Association says some of those cars manage to find their way onto the used- car market with clean -- though illegal -- titles, showing no evidence of flood damage. "Flood vehicles offer a tempting opportunity for criminals to defraud unsuspecting consumers," the association warns in a recent bulletin.
Saltwater exposure can play havoc with computer-controlled fuel and braking systems, electric power steering, power door locks, window regulators and heating and air-conditioning components, among others.
"It's very possible a car can get flood damage and still be drivable," said Cliff Weathers, deputy auto editor at Consumer Reports magazine. "It starts, it runs. But a lot of things can go wrong."
Ravel Mejia, general manager at Millennium Honda in Hempstead, says electrical gremlins can even cause air bags to deploy unnecessarily and without warning. "Saltwater will corrode the wiring," he said.
Here's some advice from the insurance industry, the AAA and dealers on spotting a flood-damaged car:
1. Examine the interior for water lines, salt deposits, silt or rust. Look underneath the dashboard against the firewall, in map pockets and glove boxes, beneath the carpeting in the trunk, inside the spare wheel well and, if possible, behind an interior door panel. Look for discolored, faded or stained upholstery or carpeting that is loose or mismatched, indicating that it might have been replaced. Pull seat belts all the way out and look inside the retractors.
2. Sniff around for a damp musty odor, but be wary also of a perfumed smell indicating an attempt to hide a musty odor with a chemical.
3. Check the enginecompartment, looking for mud or grit in the crevices of the alternator, behind wiring harnesses and around the small recesses of starter motors, power steering pumps and relays. Look closely at electrical wiring, including beneath any rubber boots covering connections, for water residue, rust on ferrous metals, a green patina on copper and a white coating on and pitting of aluminum.
4. Pull out the dipstick and look for milkiness in the oil, indicating water in the crankcase.
5. Hire a mechanic to hoist the vehicle and inspect the undercarriage.
6. Test everything electrical -- including dashboard gauges and warning lights, especially the lights indicating that the air bags and anti-lock braking systems are working. Try all of the sound system's adjustments and make sure all the speakers are working.
7. Take a test drive and look for engine hesitation on acceleration or rough running, possibly indicating the engine control system was compromised.
8. Be wary of any "deal" that sounds too good to be true, such as a particular car priced well below book value. "Don't walk away from it -- run," spokesman Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau said.
9. Consider obtaining a vehicle's history report from Carfax, Experien Autocheck or other private companies. Carfax spokesman Christopher Basso says his company's reports will indicate the county and town where a car was last registered, which can serve as another red flag if the town in question was recently hit hard by a storm. Many dealers offer reports free, but a Carfax history normally is $39.99, purchased online.