If you plan to buy a new car soon, beware.   

The Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission says eventually we'll see flood damaged vehicles from states hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Tennessee. They say scammers are disguising severely water damaged vehicles as being in good condition. 

The recent disasters in Texas and Florida are expected to leave over a million flood-damaged vehicles in their wake, according to the Commission. 

Al Hatcher, used car salesman at Acura of Chattanooga, says they are avoiding buying any used cars from Texas and Florida to protect their customers. However, he says some customers are still skeptical, which explains why car sales haven't been the best recently. 

"People turn on the TV and there's hurricanes and all that; they don't get into a car buying spirit. They're having concerns and even they're (hurricanes) way in the coast it affects everywhere," said Hatcher. 

Hatcher says there are more than 100 used cars on the Acura lot, but they're  always looking for more. 

"You just got to be careful and try to know who you're getting your cars from." 

The Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission says scammers typically attempt to sell flooded vehicles quickly after a disaster, hoping to stay ahead of computer system updates so that title check systems don't have time to detect the car's history. By the time a consumer discovers the vehicle's history, the seller will be long gone.

It's why Hatcher recommends inspecting the car yourself, and follow up with having trusted mechanic inspect the car. 

"Look at the carpet; you look at the interior of the car to see if there's water lines, you know just like you see the floods come up on the walls of a house. You see a different coloration and the line separates it and a lot of times it does the same thing to a car," said Hatcher. 

According to the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission, many of the vehicles damaged as a result of hurricanes Harvey and Irma will be categorized as salt water damage due to the presence of "brackish water," a mixture of salt and fresh water that is generally the result of the backwash of saltwater into bayou areas. Saltwater damage continues to corrode and eat away at a vehicle's body and operating components, even after it is cleaned up and repaired. With the computer system of today's motor vehicles commonly located in the lower quadrant of the car, even low water levels of water damage can cause damage to a vehicle's electrical system.

"It can be a year before the corrosion starts causing shortages on the car the salt water does speed that up quite rapidly but regular water does the same thing," said Hatcher.  

A vehicle that has been declared a total loss due to saltwater damage is deemed "nonrepairable" and may never be titled again in the state of Tennessee. Saltwater damage vehicles can only be dismantled and used for parts.

The car's history and crash report is important, but don't ignore the obvious. 

"Good cars aren't cheap; cheap cars aren't good. If they see a deal out there that's just too hard to believe there's a reason...Look further into that," said Hatcher. 

Here are some guidelines to avoid flood-related scams from the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission: 

  • Any person selling a flood vehicle is required by law prior to the sale of the vehicle to disclose such to the purchaser. Further, once titling that vehicle, the purchaser will receive a branded vehicle title indicating the vehicle’s salvage history. Having such a title will substantially impact the value of that vehicle for further resale.
  • Anyone attempting to purchase a vehicle in the near future should be on the lookout for indicators of a flood vehicle, such as a musty smell, damp carpets, or mud/silt under the seats, and should attempt to find the vehicle history prior to purchasing.
  • Use a reputable title check service, such as the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, to check the vehicle history. If you find that it was last titled in a flood-damaged area, you should ask a lot of questions before making a decision. Keep in mind that title check companies are only as good as the information that they collect from other sources. Some of the sources that they collect data from may be delayed in pushing their data to the system. 
  • Remember that a vehicle’s flood history may take up to 30 days or longer to post on traditional consumer reporting sites. As such, the Commission recommends that individuals purchase motor vehicles from a licensed motor vehicle dealer, which they can verify at https://verify.tn.gov
  • Because the vehicle could appear to be in very good shape, even if it has significant electrical and corrosion issues, it’s important to always have a trusted mechanic inspect a vehicle before purchasing it.
  • Be aware that there will be many recreational and powersport-type vehicles that have been damaged as a result of the recent storms as well. Look for the signs of flooding and saltwater damage before purchasing these units, too.
  • Keep in mind that there are lawful ways of reselling previously damaged vehicles. “Rebuilt vehicles” can be repaired and sold as long as they comply with the applicable laws. The Motor Vehicle Commission requires that licensed dealers provide a disclosure of the vehicle’s history on the Commission approved form.
  • “Saltwater damaged” vehicles are non-repairable but can be dismantled and the parts can be sold lawfully through a licensed dismantler/recycler.
  • If you suspect a licensed dealer* has sold you a vehicle with a salvage history and failed to disclose it, you may file a complaint here.
  • The Commission is not responsible for collecting or enforcing any refunds from unscrupulous sales but may take disciplinary action resulting in potential civil penalties or revocations of dealer licenses.