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Buyer beware: How to spot a flood-damaged car

A car goes through the high water as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the east coast, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, in Ocean City, Md. (File photo)

Alex Brandon/AP Photo

I have friends who regularly go south in the winter, buy a used car there, use it while on vacation and sell it when they return home, often making some money. I'm thinking of trying that this winter, but am afraid of buying a car that has been damaged in one of the recent hurricanes or floods like those following Hurricane Sandy. Is there an easy way to check for flood damage? – Jake in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

If you haven't imported a vehicle before, do some research to become familiar with the necessary steps and costs involved. Chances are your friends may be exaggerating their profits.

This really is a buyer-beware situation as once you have the vehicle back in Canada it is likely not covered by any warranty.

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Repeat importers such as your friends often have a certain location where they purchase their vehicles, perhaps even a specific dealer who they trust. It might be advisable to buy from a large, well-established and respected dealership – it will have more to lose by selling a damaged vehicle.

Hundreds of thousands of vehicles were damaged by Hurricane Sandy alone. Most will have been written off and scrapped, but some will likely have found their way to market. The major problem areas with a vehicle that has been damaged by water are the electronics and the interior.

If electronic components were submerged, they will never be the same. It is possible for the vehicle to operate normally for a while before the damage becomes evident, then intermittent glitches will crop up. The airbags might not work, but you won't know that until they fail to deploy in a crash.

What to look for? If a vehicle has been thoroughly detailed, there may not be any visual signs of water damage.

Try to get the vehicle up on a hoist and have a thorough look underneath with a powerful light. If a vehicle has been submerged, even briefly, there might be signs of a water mark inside head and tail lights. Open the hood and look for water marks on the engine block, around the wheel wells and on the radiator shell.

As for the interior, put your nose to work. Mould is almost impossible to eradicate, so be wary of air fresheners and other signs that something is being covered up. Look closely under the seats, lift carpet where possible – especially in the footwells. Same thing with the trunk or cargo compartment – lift carpet and smell. During this process, look for signs of rust where you would not normally find any – the heads of fasteners and other screws. It would be a wise investment to have a qualified technician run the vehicle through a full set of diagnostic checks.

Interior light

The interior light does not come on when I open my car door, but it works when I use the switch on the dash. – Callen in Regina

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The problem is with a small switch on the door post of the car that operates the light. It has stopped working,

Sometimes it can be brought back to life with a little lubricant, but it is likely corroded and will need to be replaced. If there is a rubber protective cover, try prying it loose and spraying the switch with WD-40 or another penetrating lubricant. Work the switch by hand repeatedly to work the lubricant into the moving parts. If this does not work, take it to a shop and ask to have it replaced.

Send your automotive questions to globedrive@globeandmail.com

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