EARL ON CARS – Palm Beach Florida Weekly

As I write this column, the horrific number of injuries, lives lost, and homes and vehicles damaged and destroyed by Hurricane Ian is still being tabulated. It’s clear that Ian will go down in history as the costliest hurricane in Florida history.

We think the main threat from hurricanes is the high winds, in Ian’s case up to 145mph. But the real culprit is the flooding. In Ian’s case, the storm surge on Florida’s West Coast raised sea levels high enough to submerge much of the Southwest Florida coast. Thousands and thousands of vehicles have been submerged in varying depths of water for hours or days.

When an insurance company “totals” a car for flood damage, the car is not scrapped; it is sold by the insurance company for pennies on the dollar. Anyone who buys these “dead cars” resells them, mostly to car dealers. Guess who the car dealers sell them to – they’ll sell them to you if they can get away with it.

Even when there are no storms, hurricanes or floods, cars are flooded, scrapped and resold every day. Heavy rains often occur, forming deep puddles and flowing from streets into canals. “Buyer beware” when buying a used car, but with Hurricane Ian, the risk of buying a flood car has increased astronomically.

You’d think consumers would be protected from accidentally buying a car that was submerged and totaled by the insurance company, but that’s not the case. All 50 states have different rules for naming damaged or flooded cars. The flood car used car buyers and sellers know which states they can get fake titles from to hide the fact that the car they are selling you was previously submerged. Flood cars purchased in Florida can receive “clean” titles in Mississippi, New Jersey and other states.

As you probably know, new and used car prices have skyrocketed since the advent of COVID. Only recently, used car prices have started to decline slightly, but Hurricane Ian is sure to reverse that trend, at least in Florida and other Ian-hit states. Regular readers of my column will know that at this time I would advise against buying a new or used vehicle unless absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, many victims of Hurricane Ian have to purchase a car.

There’s a very good reason why insurance companies totally swamp cars. A car that’s been submerged up to the dashboard is just as worthless as a car that’s totaled in a head-on collision. The only difference is that a crashed car is obvious and many can be repaired. A flood car can look “like new” and is by no means obviously worthless. Modern high-tech cars are particularly vulnerable to water ingress. All vehicles today are more computerized and electronic than mechanical. A modern car that has been submerged in water for only a short time may run fine for a few months or more, but eventually the water in its computerized and electronic parts will cause them to fail.

The unscrupulous sellers of flood cars are masters of disguise. They can make a flood car look, smell, feel, and even drive (for a while) like a perfectly good car. In fact, one of the things a possible flood car investigator looks for is that the car is too nice and clean. The severe damage to a flood car, inside the computer and electronic modules, is completely invisible.

If you need to buy a used vehicle today, take it to a qualified auto mechanic you trust. Ask the technician how much he or she will charge to examine the car you are considering buying and tell you if the car was submerged. A fair price for this is $200-$250. It’ll be the best $200 to $250 you’ve ever spent. ¦