How to Avoid Buying a Car With Flood Damage

Stephen Fogel
October 5, 2018

In September, Hurricane Florence dumped 10 trillion gallons of rain over the Carolinas, Virginia and neighboring states, doing about $22 billion in property damage while flooding homes and businesses — including toxic animal waste containment sites.

Would you want to buy a car that sat in these waters for days at a time?

flooded cars
Image courtesy of FEMA

Sitting under water causes damage to paint, interiors, electronics, wiring and safety systems like airbags and anti-lock brakes. Once the water recedes, the process of corrosion begins. Flood cars rot from the inside out.

Unfortunately, many of these vehicles will make it back to the used car market. According to a recent report by Carfax, American drivers may already be behind the wheels of over 300,000 flooded vehicles right now. It will only get worse once the Hurricane Florence flood cars work their way into the system.

Your mechanic can help 

The easiest way to avoid taking a bath on a flooded car is to get a pre-purchase inspection from a certified repair shop. For a reasonable fee, you can get a thorough check of the vehicle in question. The mechanic will know where to look for evidence of flood damage, as well as any other issues that may be hiding. 

Get it diagnosed by a professional

6 places to check for flood damage

To get a damaged car looking new, an unscrupulous reseller might need to do as little as hosing off the mud, steam cleaning the engine, shampooing the upholstery and carpets, and putting a coat of wax on the paint. Pretty easy. 

Using states with loose regulations, these resellers can then “launder” the titles of flood cars that have been classified as salvage. Consumers would have no idea what these vehicles have been through.

Avoiding the purchase of a water-damaged car can be tricky, as most of the harm can’t be seen, and may not be noticeable until long after you purchase it. Here's what to look for.

1. Start with the interior

The best place to find flooding clues is the car’s interior. Make sure the doors and windows have been closed tight for several minutes, then get in and close the doors behind you. Sniff the air inside — do you smell mildew? Is it overly musty? These are sure signs of water infiltration. 

At the other extreme, note whether there’s a heavy smell of deodorizer or cleaning solution. This may have been used to clean or cover up the mold and mildew.

Continue to sniff for these smells as you examine these interior components for signs of flood damage: 

  • Seat fabric and padding
  • Carpeting and padding underneath
  • Instrument panel (including underneath)
  • Door panels
  • Ceiling fabric
  • Rear shelf on sedans
  • Glove compartment, door pockets and other storage areas

Look for water lines and stains that can indicate the level of water in the vehicle. Check for signs of dirt, mud and debris in crevices where it may not have been noticed during the cleanup. Signs of dampness or rust inside the car should also put you on alert.

Just as revealing is the presence of very clean or new seats or carpets in an otherwise well-used vehicle. You may even notice mismatched carpeting, where certain pieces were replaced, but not others.  

Check the cabin air filter, too. If it’s missing or wet, it could indicate flood damage.

2. Check the electrical system and components

Inspect the electrical components for malfunctions. Electrical problems can occur days, months or even years after a vehicle was in a flood. Make sure all of the exterior lights, such as the headlights and brake lights, are working properly, as well as their knobs and buttons. 

Make sure to do a thorough check of the interior electrical systems of the car, like the air conditioning, radio, turn signals, power locks, power windows and power seats. If any of these don’t work properly, ask about the cause of the issue. Also check to see if there is any water residue or condensation in any of the interior lights or on the dashboard.

3. Go under the hood 

Look for mud, water residue, debris or rust in crevices near or around the underhood area and the engine. Rust on the heads of any exposed screws under the hood is not a good sign. A water line in the engine compartment is a dead giveaway of flood damage.

Also, if the car happens to have a paper air filter, check to see if it has any water stains. If you see any, the car has likely been flooded in the past. Check the engine oil and transmission fluid for contamination. If water has gotten into the engine or transmission, the fluid on the dipstick will have beads of water on it, or may look frothy or discolored. 

4. Look around the exterior

Floodwater can leave its mark outside the car, too. Check for these clues:

  • Water buildup, fogging or a visible water line inside the headlights and tail lights
  • Tiny holes drilled in the headlights and tail lights to let floodwater drain out
  • Water, debris or mud accumulation inside the wheel wells

Look underneath the car for any evidence of flaking metal or significant rust that seems inconsistent with the age of the vehicle or its general appearance. Also check for missing rubber drain plugs under the car or in the bottoms of the doors. These may have been removed to let the water drain out. 

5. Search the bottom of the trunk and other hidden areas

Don’t forget to check one of the best indicators: the spare tire compartment. Open the trunk or rear door, remove the spare tire and check underneath. This place often gets overlooked during flood cleaning, so you may find a pool of water, a water line or calcified markings. If so, walk away.

Also, any access panels or fuse boxes in the interior should be opened and checked, and a flashlight should be used to look as far down as possible into the exposed openings. These areas are almost always neglected when trying to cover up water damage.  

6. A test drive will tell you a lot

You should always thoroughly test drive any vehicle you’re considering buying. This goes double for a car that may be flood-damaged. Here are some things to look for during your test drive:

  • Does it start easily and idle smoothly?
  • Are there any odd smells, sounds or smoke when you start it?
  • Do all of the electrical accessories work properly?
  • Does the heater or the air conditioner smell when you turn it on?
  • Does the audio system sound good? (If not, the speakers may have gotten wet)
  • Does the transmission shift smoothly?
  • Does the engine accelerate strongly and smoothly?
  • Do the brakes stop securely?
  • Does the suspension handle bumps and sharp turns well?

Your special focus here should be on the electrical system and the electronics, as these are the greatest potential trouble spots if the car has been in a flood. Take your time and check everything. If the seller won’t let you drive it first, walk away.

» LEARN MORE: Get an estimate for your car repair

Protect yourself with online resources

An online vehicle history report can help you identify where the vehicle was serviced in the recent past. For example, if the vehicle was regularly serviced in Wilmington, North Carolina, for two or three years before Hurricane Florence, it’s possible it fell victim to flood conditions. 

Carfax will also tell you for free whether the vehicle has had flood damage reported (the complete vehicle history report can be purchased). Using the vehicle identification number (VIN), you can also investigate the its history through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System and the National Insurance Crime Bureau. These can help, but flood-damaged vehicles will not always show up in these databases.

Buy from someone trustworthy

One of the better ways to avoid a flooded car is to buy it from a certified dealer, or a large, reputable used-car chain like CarMax

It can be much riskier to purchase a vehicle from individual owners. These could be people who sell numerous cars but claim to be private sellers to avoid government oversight and Lemon Law requirements. Online auctions also tend to have a higher percentage of untrustworthy sellers. 

It's always better to go and see the vehicle in person. Be sure that the VIN matches the car’s registration and the dashboard tag. Verify that the title has not been marked as “salvage” or “flood.”

With a keen eye and some due diligence, you can avoid sinking money into a sunken car.

Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.

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