TRENTON — As of right now, there's no way to tell when, if or how many vehicles from areas impacted by recent hurricanes will make their way to New Jersey's stream of commerce.

But if you're in the market for a used car anytime soon in New Jersey, it's time to relearn a lesson taught shortly after Sandy made landfall in 2012 — how to spot a vehicle that's been flooded.

A once-flooded car should have a title that's branded as such, says New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission Chief Administrator Raymond Martinez, but that's not always the way it goes, thanks to "bad guys" who try to pass a vehicle off without the proper branding and hope buyers several states away aren't as likely to check for water damage.

"If they weren't tossed around and dinged up, they will look fine," Martinez said. "But if the salt water has gotten into the electronics and in the engine ... it's just a matter of time before those vehicles are going to be off the road, and you don't want to be the person owning them when that occurs."

Martinez notes the MVC has no problem with the sale of flooded vehicles in the state; the danger arises when the vehicles are not properly marked on their titles. As shown in the photo above, a title with an 'F' status denotes a flood vehicle.

The title of a salvage vehicle — deemed uneconomically-repairable by the insurance company — is marked in a more obvious manner.

Martinez said to protect themselves in the car-buying process, consumers can make sure they deal with a reputable car dealer, request a vehicle history report, and get their own mechanic to inspect the vehicle.

What to look for:

  • Musty or moldy smell, or the strong scent of a deodorizer
  • Rust on metal that wouldn't typically be exposed to water
  • Water-stained upholstery
  • Water damage to the door panels or seat belts
  • Mildew, silt or debris in areas around the engine compartment, under the carpeting or in the trunk

Paula Frendel, executive director of the New Jersey Independent Automobile Dealers Association, said she has not seen any hints of vehicles from hurricane-impacted regions headed to the Garden State. If anything, those areas are in need of inventory and are looking to New Jersey for help.

"Any dealers here obviously are going to know there's going to be a potential issue with a car that came from Texas or from Florida," she said. "The dealers are probably going to stay away from it."

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