By Kelsy Mittauer | CBS11 Special Project's ProducerBy Cristin Severance

NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Thousands of vehicles destroyed in Hurricane Harvey may soon be sold to unsuspecting buyers in North Texas. Flooded or salvaged cars shouldn’t be driven, but sold for parts. But if the owner never reported issues like a flood or a wreck to their insurance company, a vehicle history report won’t help you spot a flooded car.

Miranda Perrian says she was excited to find a 2008 Dodge Caliber for sale at a good price at a Fort Worth dealership. “I thought it was safe and reliable and I wouldn’t have any problems. But the next day the airbag light came on and it wouldn’t go off.” When she took it in for repairs, the mechanic gave her some shocking news. “The airbags were disabled and if I got into a wreck they probably weren’t going to work, and I’d probably be dead.”

And that wasn’t all. Perrian says she was told the horn was broken, as was the oil pressure sensor. When she called an insurance agent to get coverage for the car, she was in for another surprise. “She said, the car has been salvaged twice,” said Perrian, “and I was like… what does that mean?”

The insurance agent had run the car’s VIN through the DMV and found it had a rebuilt salvaged title. A vehicle is considered “salvaged” when repairs from hail, flooding or a wreck total 75 percent or more of the vehicle’s value. If a car is rebuilt and deemed safe by the DMV, the title goes from salvaged to rebuilt salvaged.

It’s estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million vehicles were flooded in the Houston area during Harvey. “Those cars are going to end up being sold in online sales and at unscrupulous dealers,” said Jerry Allen, a special agent with the National Insurance Crime Bureau. “In most cases, they’re not going to tell [buyers] the truth on a flooded car.”

Allen says there are ways to spot if the car was underwater. “There are things you can look for like under the engine compartment, look for debris that can’t be explained.” He says you should also closely inspect the radiator area and around the alternator. “Anywhere you have anchor points with bolts, look for areas of rust there.”

Allen also encourages buyers to pay attention to odors. “If the vehicle’s been in a flood you’re going to have a smell of mildew,” says Allen, “You’re never going to get rid of that mildew smell.”

And he says there is one place that sellers usually forget to clean — the spare tire area. “If you’ll look there, that’s where they miss those areas underneath the spare tire… you’re going to see sediment and debris from water.”

As for Perrian’s car, a rebuilt salvage, Allen says those cars can still have issues. “If the component parts aren’t replaced properly it can be very dangerous.” Some insurance companies won’t offer coverage for vehicles with “salvage” or “rebuilt salvage” titles.

Perrian says she was never told her car has a “rebuilt salvage” title. But the manager of Triple R Auto Sales says Perrian signed the paperwork and that by law, he did not have to make sure she understood what she was signing.

Perrian admits she was in a hurry and didn’t run the vehicle’s history through Carfax or Autocheck. “To find out it’s just a lemon… it’s not going to pass a state inspection or anything… it’s just crazy.”

 

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