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Cars damaged by Sandy give new meaning to 'buyer beware'

The Riverhead Town Board leased out 53 acres

The Riverhead Town Board leased out 53 acres of town-owned land in Calverton to store a fleet of auctioned-ready cars that were damaged during superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 20, 2012) Credit: Doug Kuntz

It seems hard to believe, but by the time this column goes to press, it will be just about six months to the day that superstorm Sandy slammed into Long Island. Almost everyone on the Island was affected one way or another, be it fallen trees, loss of electricity, long gas lines, or last, but certainly not least…floodwaters.

For several months after the storm I was occupied with inspecting classic cars that suffered everything from minor water damage to complete submersion. I did this on behalf of both the insurance companies and the owners. The damage to some of the cars was clearly visible with sand and seaweed occupying spaces normally reserved for the driver and passengers. With others it was less obvious, particularly if the owner had made an attempt to clean up the damage immediately after the storm.

Many of these cars were declared total losses by the insurance companies. And for good reason. They were junk. They may not have been junk as soon as the water receded, or even a day or two later had heroic and expensive attempts been made to mitigate the damage. But after a week or two the saltwater had done so much hidden damage that the cost of disassembling the car for repair, or even for parts, usually exceeded the value of the car or the parts.

One of two things happened with these cars. Either they were sent off to be auctioned as “salvage vehicles with flood damage,” or the insurance companies, which owned the car after paying the claim, allowed the owner to buy the car back, usually for a small sum of money. And this is where the problems began.

I recall walking through one of the massive storage facilities on the East End of Long Island where classic cars, along with regular cars, were taken to be auctioned off. I recall thinking how good some of these classic cars looked. After sitting for several weeks to several months they began to look just like any other car that lived outdoors, where cars are designed to live. With a good cleaning many of them could be put in a showroom. But they were still junk. Unfortunately, other people had the same thought as me, except for the “but they were still junk” part.

Rumors began to circulate that there were unscrupulous individuals trying to deceive people by buying these cars, cleaning them up and/or repairing them, and then selling them without disclosing their history. Some thought it was best to get the cars back on the market immediately before their history became a matter of a simple internet VIN search. Another strategy held that it would make more sense to hold the cars for six months until the “Sandy Stigma” wore off. Happily for those shysters that subscribed to this strategy, sale time would coincide with spring, which is generally the best time to sell a classic car in the Northeast. Guess what time of year it is?

Since almost all of our classic cars (any car manufactured before 1973) have “Transferable New York Registrations” with no provision for recording the car’s salvage history, as would be the case with a titled car, it became difficult to trace these cars history.

These cars are appearing on the market now. Never before has the phrase “Buyer Beware” been more applicable. By now we’ve learned most of the clues to look for such as musty smells, water stains, new carpet, new seats or door panels, new starters, corrosion at electrical connections, sand castles on the trunk floor, seaweed hanging from the antenna, and other obvious signs that the car had been partially or completely submerged.

But what we haven’t heard are some common sense things to investigate that only come with real world experience. Ask the seller straight out “Was this car in any way affected by Hurricane Sandy?” Even a crook will have trouble looking you right in the eye and lying knowing that if they do so, particularly if they put it in writing, you might have legal recourse. Ask the seller how long they have owned the car. Six months or less should pique your curiosity. Where did the car come from, and can they prove that? The south shore of Long Island should raise an eyebrow, and a previous owners registration from Long Beach should have you looking at your watch and explaining that you have to leave due to a previous appointment.

As I’ve stated many times in this column, most people that you will encounter in this hobby are honest. Not all cars from the south shore are flood cars. Not even all cars from Long Beach are flood cars. It’s up to you to be extra vigilant and do your diligence. The fact is that Long Island was the victim of an epic natural disaster, and just as anywhere else in the world, there is a small number of people that will look to take advantage of that fact. Caveat emptor.

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