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Don't get suckered into buying a flooded car, do a little homework

Following the recent floods in places like Toronto and Calgary, it’s possible some water-damaged cars may have been quickly dried out and offered for sale to unsuspecting buyers.

“People should never purchase a used vehicle without a vehicle history report,” says Anne Marie Thomas, manager of sales and new business development for InsuranceHotline.com. “A lot of people buy the history report after they’ve purchased the car, and that’s like closing the barn door after the horse is gone.”

When an insurance company writes off a car, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be fixed, but that the repairs will cost more than the vehicle is worth. This write-off status is noted on the vehicle’s registration. Such cars are commonly called “branded.”

It’s possible to repair a branded vehicle to the province’s safety standards and have it reinstated for the road, but some unscrupulous owners or dealers will do just a quick cosmetic touch-up and offer the car for sale. A vehicle history report will indicate if the car has been branded, and if so, if it was subsequently repaired to provincial standards and recertified. If it wasn’t, you can’t put license plates on it.

Water-damaged cars aren’t necessarily written off, though, and the seller may not tell you that it got soaked. Watch for vehicles registered in places that got flooded, and that were put up for sale in other provinces a month or two after the disaster.

Check the car for clues. A mouldy smell is an immediate tip-off, but a car that smells very strongly of air fresheners could warn of a post-flood cleanup. Look in the engine compartment, glove box, in the trunk under the spare tire, under the dash, or in other hidden areas for dried mud or sand. Check the wiring, since flooding can turn it brittle. When you turn the key, all of the warning lights should come on for a short period. Be wary if some don’t, because it could indicate that water got into the system.

Beware of new carpeting or seat upholstery. If you can, pull up a corner of the carpet to look at the condition of the floor, or reach under the seat to see if the underside is damp or dirty. Pull the seatbelts all the way out and look for water stains on the lower portion.

“A mechanic might be able to help with identifying a flooded car,” Thomas says. “It depends on the extent of the damage. Some can be fixed, but others are beyond repair.”

Words of advice

Cars written off in collisions are sometimes shoddily fixed and resold. Always check the vehicle’s history, since these vehicles can be unsafe to drive.

It’s always best to have a trusted mechanic check over any used car you’re planning to buy.

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