Always get a written estimate for vehicle repairs and inspect cars for flood damage before buying

Flooded Houses, Road, and Honda / Attorney General Offers Tips to Help Consumers Avoid Repair Rip-Offs and Flood Cars After Hurricane
Image: NOAA
October 21, 2016

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper is offering tips to consumers whose vehicles were damaged by Hurricane Matthew as well as those who need a new vehicle after the storm but are trying to avoid purchasing a flood car.

Hurricane Matthew flooded cars and smashed them with fallen trees.

"Storm victims are picking up the pieces and for many that means trying to get cars fixed or replaced," Cooper said. "Make sure you get a fair deal on car repairs by getting recommendations from friends and written estimates from mechanics and body shops, and contact your insurance company right away if your car flooded."

The attorney general and experts from the Consumer Protection Division of his office have been traveling to parts of North Carolina that were severely impacted by the storm, including Cumberland, Robeson, Pitt, Edgecombe, Nash, and Wilson counties. In each of these place, they have provided information to help consumers avoid scams that frequently pop up in the wake of disasters, such as home repair scams, price gouging, fake charities, and phony inspectors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Keep the following tips in mind if your vehicle is in need of repairs:

  • Ask friends and family for recommendations for a good mechanic or body shop.
  • Get written estimates from different places. For major repairs, get a second opinion.
  • Shops should provide written estimates and ask you to sign an authorization for any repair job costing more than $350. They cannot exceed the cost to which you consent by more than 10 percent without getting your permission first.
  • If the mechanic recommends replacing any parts, ask for the old ones back. You might get credit on some parts if the mechanic wants to keep them.

Was your car flooded? The following tips may be useful for you:

  • Open the windows and doors of the vehicle to allow it to dry out and prevent mold growth.
  • Turning on the engine could damage it if water is still in it, so do not try to turn it on.
  • Check for a waterline to figure out how high the water rose in the vehicle. Water that rises to the level of the dashboard may damage the vehicle's electrical system and usually means that the car is a total loss.
  • Contact your insurance company. Damage caused by flooding is usually covered by comprehensive auto policies, not by collision policies. When in doubt, try to get your insurer to total the car since flood cars often have serious problems.
  • Before driving the car, get a mechanic to check it out thoroughly.

After a major storm occurs, there will be both new and used vehicles offered for sale that were flooded. These often undergo thorough cleaning that can make it hard for potential buyers to find even serious damage. Flood damage will become apparent later and frequently causes serious electrical and mechanical problems.

North Carolina law stipulates that flood damage to a car has to be disclosed in writing before the car is sold. Cars that have been either partially or completely submerged, resulting in damage either to the body, the engine, or the transmission, are categorized as flood damage. Failure to disclose such vehicular damage is a class two misdemeanor that local district attorneys can prosecute. Anyone violating this law may face civil penalties of amounts up to $5,000 for each violation.

"This flooding has already caused terrible damage, and we don't want anyone else to suffer down the road," Cooper warned. "If you plan to shop for a car in the next few weeks or months, learn the warning signs for flood cars."

Follow the tips below to avoid buying a car damaged by flooding:

  • Ask the vehicle's seller directly whether or not it has been damaged in any way, including by a storm or flooding.
  • Think about getting a complete vehicle history report from a service such as CARFAX.
  • Ask for a copy of the title for any used vehicle. Check both the date and place of transfer to determine if the car comes from a state that recently suffered flooding. Damage from flooding will be disclosed on the title only if the insurer officially declared the vehicle totaled.
  • Get an independent mechanic to examine the car before you buy it.
  • Try not to buy a vehicle over the Internet if you have not seen it in person, particularly if the area in which it is being sold recently suffered flooding.
  • If it is possible, test drive the vehicle and remember to: check the trunk, glove box, dashboard, and under the seats for rust and mud; check under the dash and carpet for rusty brackets, discolored upholstery, and mismatched carpet; test electronic components like headlights, windshield wipers, turn signals, power outlets, and the radio; run both the heater and the air conditioner and check the vents for signs of water or mud; and ensure that all gauges on the dashboard are working accurately.

Any consumers who believe that they may have unknowingly bought a vehicle damaged by flooding or who want to report auto repair problems should contact the Consumer Protection Division at (877) 566-7226.