(WZZM) -- Recent record flooding in West Michigan is now posing a new threat: Flood vehicles making their way into the local auto market.
WZZM 13 News started an investigation several months ago after warnings surfaced that Superstorm Sandy cars were popping up for sale around the country and possibly here in Michigan. That natural disaster damaged upwards of 250,000 vehicles.
Earlier this year, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a consumer alert advising, "Michigan residents to exercise caution before purchasing their next used car to avoid being scammed into purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle."
Now, there are more concerns following recent flooding in the midwest. It's increasing the likelihood that unsuspecting used car buyers will drive away with less than they bargained for.
Jamie and Eric Carlson have owned Ervine's Auto Repair in Wyoming for the past 20 years; prospective used-car buyers frequent the shop for pre-purchase inspections. The Carlsons say there are few things more damaging to a car than water.
"There are so many electrical components and more computers and sensors in today's cars. It wreaks havoc on those," said Jamie.
That havoc can often be hidden from the causal glance, unless the buyer has someone who knows what to look for.
"In 36 years of doing this, the only time you see cars that have this on here are ones that have been under water," said Eric Carlson pointing to tannish staining, resembling leopard spots underneath a car found on a local used car lot.
Carlson says he can count on one hand the number of flood damaged cars he's inspected during his three decades in the auto repair business. However, the past few months has been a different story.
His wife says a potential buyer brought two cars in the same week that had flood damage.
"There was one yesterday and the day before. Which is highly unusual," she said. In following weeks, the Carlsons received complaints about several others. One vehicle had damage to the airbag system which would prevent the airbags from deploying properly.
WZZM 13 went to one of the car lots to take a suspected flood car out for spin. Inside, the 2006 Toyota Corolla looked and smelled untarnished. But once we we rolled into Ervine's auto repair for an inspection, it didn't take long for Carlson and his crew to show us just how deceiving looks can be.
"Look at the color of this. I mean this is just dirt coming off. It had to sit in there long enough to get all of this on there. See what it does to the exhaust system. See all the rust here? This isn't going to last long and this should last the life of the car essentially," Carlson said. "Everything on here is rusted. It has way more rust than it should have and the corrosion gets in everything. You can't get it out once it is there, that is why they (insurance companies) total them. They know they can't be properly repaired."
Carlson found debris or damage on the transmission, exhaust and suspension systems, fuel and brake lines, and electrical components. He also found a puncture in the air conditioning condenser and noticed a water line on the car's firewall.
"That firewall should be virtually spotless because nothing ever gets there," said Carlson. "Look at all the dirt. There is actually dirt on the brake wall right here-- I'm flaking the dirt right off. There is mud packed on that. There is no way that gets on there from driving a car-- even if the guy lived on a dirt road."
Despite the poor condition, Carlson noticed someone had previously done front-end body repairs.
"These screws here, these are brand new. They don't have any corrosion on anything. This has all been redone," Carlson said.
Many buyers use CARFAX as a method of weeding out bad cars before buying. CARFAX uses the vehicle identification number (VIN) to keep track of a vehicle's history.
One might expect the extensive damage on the Corolla to be listed on its CARFAX report for this vehicle. However, the report is clean.
"CARFAX only works if somebody, like a legitimate body shop or insurance company turns this information into CARFAX. If this doesn't get turned into them, they have no way of knowing," said Carlson. "There are plenty of ways to skirt CARFAX. Buyer beware: Get anything you are looking at checked."
And that is exactly the advice CARFAX gives its own customers. On the front page of each report the company advises customers that "CARFAX vehicle history report is based only on information supplied to CARFAX... and other information about this vehicle, including problems, may not have been reported to CARFAX. Use this report as one important tool, along with a vehicle inspection and test drive, to make a better decision."
After inspection, WZZM 13 took the Corolla back to the used car dealer, USA Auto Sales on Division in Wyoming, to see what the owners knew. The owner did not want to comment on camera but says he did not know the car had any flood damage. He said he got this car and several others from an auction on the east side of the state. He showed us what appears to be a clean title and put the car back on the lot.
"They are going to go 'We didn't know!' but I for the life of me don't believe that for a minute. These guys deal in this stuff every day of the week. This is what they do; if they don't know, it is their responsibility to find out," said Carlson.
During our investigation we talked to local mechanics, car dealers, auction companies, insurance experts and state officials.
Through those sources, we're told about a handful of suspected flood cars have been discovered on West Michigan car lots. However, we haven't been able to link them to any particular weather event.
Experts and authorities say it is more important than ever for used car buyers to do their homework.
It is not illegal to sell a previously flooded or salvage car if the seller informs the buyer prior to purchase. Consumers who believe they have purchased a flood car without knowledge are advised to report it at the Michigan Secretary of State. Purchasers can file complaints against a used motor vehicle dealer with the Secretary of State, Bureau of Information Security, Regulatory Monitoring Division. Complaints can be filed online at http://www.michigan.gov/sos or by contacting the Bureau of Information Security, Regulatory Monitoring Division at 1-888-SOS-MICH (1-888-767-6424).
Consumers can also make complaints to the Michigan Attorney General, Consumer Protection Division at P.O. Box 30213 Lansing, MI 48909.