With Hurricane Sandy being cleaned up, thousands of cars – including collector cars such as the Aston Martins I recently spotted – will soon start to move through the salvage system. Few will be crushed – most will either be repaired; or written off. After that, they end up being rebuilt and sold with a salvage or rebuilt title.

Except, sometimes that somehow either doesn’t happen; or it gets whitewashed though a series of shady transactions. If your VIN check doesn’t turn anything up but you’re still suspicious, trust your instincts and start digging in. I’ve put together some bullet points to check, including suggestions from NADA and National Consumers League. What other tips – or horror stories – do you have?

Title and VIN

Enter the VIN at the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) at All insurers, salvage pools, junkyards, recyclers and self-insured entities such as rental car companies in all 50 states are required by law to report total loss vehicles to NMVTIS within 30 days. Many are reporting daily. Vehicle histories can be obtained for between $3 and $13.

It’s up to you if you buy a Flood, Junk, Salvage, Rebuilt or Reconstructed title – I’ve warned you, you know what you’re getting into. But again, titlewashing across state lines happens. Watch out for physical alteration of the actual title, too – you know, cutting and pasting, white-out, whatever. You need to hold that piece of paper in your hand.

Be wary of buying a car sight unseen. It’s laughably easy to alter a digital image of a title or VIN. You or someone you trust needs to see the car, its VIN and documentation in person before you commit one cent.

Even if there are no other red flags, a Carfax can also tell you that a car was registered in Staten Island or Atlantic City in October 2012. By itself that might not mean anything, but if you’re building a case it’s a nice piece of evidence. Reporting for these is far from perfect, but it helps.

If you’re buying from a dealer with any kind of warranty, get it in writing. This applies to new cars, as well.

Just Google the VIN. You’d be surprised how often you can find old dealer auctions. Learn to use Google’s cache to find old records that the auction company itself has deleted.

Physical inspection.

Salt water is vastly worse than fresh.

Any funny smell, whether mold or mildew; or from the inch-thick stack of Little Trees hanging from the mirror to mask it.

Mold or mildew itself.

Discolored, bleeding or redyed upholstery.

Condensation in the gauges, radio or exterior lamps.

Inoperable speakers, or fresh sealant around the door panels.

Burned-out bulbs in the interior or trunk.

Silt or residue in the interior under carpeting, under the dash, in the steering column, rear seats, spare-tire well, gauges or door pockets.

Water marks, rust or evaporation residue (i.e., salt) in the same places. Just reach up under the bottom of the plastic dash cover and run your finger in there.

Gritty or erratic power-window or seat operation.

Hard starting, rough running or hesitation.

Thin clearcoat or chrome from overpolishing; scratches and touchups from grit.

Bulging dash and door panels.

Rust on screws in the console or other areas where the water would normally not reach unless submerged.

Seat tracks can hold many clues, whether they’re rusting, or have sand in them.

Mud or grit in alternator crevices, behind wiring harnesses and around the small recesses of starter motors, power steering pumps and relays.

Any damage to wiring connections, fuses and blocks, including rust, water residue or suspicious corrosion.

Undercarriage rust and flaking metal that would not normally be associated with late model vehicles.
Freshly replaced exhaust in a late-model vehicle; or corroded exhaust. Exhaust is another good place to hunt for silt.

If you don’t feel confident doing your own inspection, you probably aren’t reading this blog…but any good local shop will do it.

photo credit: Mike Baird via 2012
edited text credit: David Adolphus via 2012