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Consumers must protect themselves from unknowingly buying a salvage vehicle. With the flooding caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, flood-damaged cars will appear in the used car market. Historically, approximately 50% of all flood-damaged vehicles make their way back into the market. Modern cars that are flooded are hard to restore because they contain significant electronics, which gets destroyed or compromised by water. Most are never the same.

When a Florida vehicle is flooded and reported to the owner’s motor vehicle insurance  company, the insurance company is supposed to brand the vehicle and report it to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (“DHSMV”).  A brand appears on that vehicle’s title and is a descriptive label which identifies the vehicle’s current or prior condition, such as junk, salvage, or flood.

Section 319.14(1)(b), Florida Statutes, requires that DHSMV indicate in a conspicuous place on vehicle’s title that the vehicle is flood damaged.  Florida car dealers are required to disclose if a vehicle has been branded.  However, not all states require damaged vehicles to be branded. This means that a flood damaged vehicle from another state could be sold in Florida with a clean title.

Further, motor vehicles with brands on their titles could have had their brands “washed” (i.e., removed) from the titles. Brand washing occurs when the motor vehicle is retitled in another state that does not check with the originating state or all states that previously issued a title on that vehicle to determine whether the vehicle has had any existing brands. These vehicles are then fraudulently presented for sale to unsuspecting consumers without disclosure of their true condition, including brand history. These consumers pay more than the vehicle’s fair market value and likely purchase an unsafe vehicle

WHAT CAN A CONSUMER DO?

If a vehicle is titled in Florida, prior to purchasing a vehicle you can use the DHSMV’s website to confirm the vehicle description and check for brands. You need the vehicle identification number (VIN) or Title number to perform the search.

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) is an electronic system that provides consumers with information about a vehicle’s condition and history. Prior to purchasing a vehicle, NMVTIS allows consumers to find information on the vehicle’s title, most recent odometer reading, brand history, and, in some cases, historical theft data.

Trust your nose, mold has a very distinct odor. If a car smells musty it has likely been exposed to water. If the car has a strong smell of air freshener, it may be masking the smell of mildew. Check the carpet and upholstery for strong smells and mold.

A sign of flooding is a very fine silt in the car that is almost impossible to get rid of entirely. Look for silt. Take your finger and run it up under the dashboard or another spot not easily cleaned.

Look for a waterline or signs of mud inside the vehicle. Places often overlooked are the glove box, under the dash and the trunk.

Check under the vehicle for signs of rust or corrosion that seems out of place for the vehicle’s age and location.

If you feel you need legal advice, please contact Terrell Hogan’s consumer law attorney Leslie A. Goller, who has experience representing consumers.