As Western Washington residents brace for another spate of storm-induced flooding, one of Washington’s auto insurers warns of another form of saturation that could cost consumers – a wave of used cars on the market with hidden water damage caused by flooding.
According to Jon Osterberg, spokesman for Seattle-based Pemco Insurance, local consumers are especially vulnerable because Washington state – unlike many other states – does not require cars deemed total losses by insurance companies to note the flood damage on the title reports.
Pemco voluntarily reports cars totaled with flood damage to Carfax, an auto database available to consumers that provides detailed vehicle history reports using the vehicle identification number (VIN).
Storms this month have produced 11 totaled cars from Pemco, Osterberg said, with more on the way as insurance adjusters continue to assess flood-damaged cars.
“Once a car has been submerged by flood water, the damage can be severe,” Osterberg said. “For example, even a small amount of water can ruin a car’s increasingly complex electronic system.
“You would never consider dunking your home computer in a bathtub and then expect it to work. Cars contain computers that are just as complex,” Osterberg added.
Osterberg noted that water can cause widespread damage to a car. It can corrode air-bag controllers and electronics, contaminate lubricants, and threaten mechanical systems, making the car dangerous to drive.
But what’s most troubling is that the damage is often invisible.
“Because flood damage is not always apparent to the untrained eye, consumers first must learn what to look for, and then do a careful examination,” he said.
In addition to purchasing a vehicle history report, the insurer recommends consumers take the following steps to protect themselves:
• Review the title carefully. Some states, not including Washington, require totaled vehicles to be designated as flood damaged on the title.
• Take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection. Professionals know how to spot signs of water damage that are invisible to the untrained eye. If you inspect the car yourself …
• Smell for any musty odors.
• Look for a well-defined line or watermark on the interior and exterior of the car. You might want to remove a door panel to see if there’s a watermark.
• Look for mud or debris on the bottom edges of
brackets or panels where it couldn’t naturally settle.
• Inspect the car in difficult-to-clean places, like the gaps between panels in the trunk and under the hood, where water-borne mud and debris might still cling.
• Check the seat-mounting screws to see if there is any evidence they’ve been removed. If the carpeting doesn’t match the interior or if it fits loosely, it might have been replaced.
• Check the rubber drain plugs under the car and on the bottoms of doors. Look for any signs they might have been removed recently.
• Flex a few wires under the dashboard to see if they bend or crack. Wet wires become brittle after drying and can crack or fail at any time.
• Look at the heads of any unpainted, exposed screws under the dashboard. Unpainted metal in cars might show signs of rust.
• Test the lights (interior and exterior). Any water lines might still show on lenses or reflectors. Start the ignition and make sure all accessory lights, warning lights, and gauges work. Specifically look at the ABS and airbag lights.
• Test windshield wipers, turn signals, cigarette lighter, radio, heater, and air-conditioner several times to make sure they work.
For more information, visit www.pemco.com.
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