How To Avoid Purchasing A Car With Flood Damage

By Kimberlea Buczeke, September 5, 2017

One thing that always comes after heavy storms and flooded streets is a major increase of water damaged cars in the used car market. Avoiding the purchase of a water damaged car can be very tricky, as most of the damage can not be seen, and may not be noticeable until a couple hundred miles after you purchase it.

flood graphic repairpal

Many (awful) people even attempt to scam others into purchasing cheap, but heavily water damaged, cars that are quite unsafe to drive. The damaged cars can range in a multitude of bad experiences for the new owner, all of which can be expensive, a hassle, and even potentially dangerous. This may have been a greater issue prior to Carfax-type services, but it is still frequently attempted. In this article, we discuss the best ways to check if the vehicle you want to purchase may have had previous water damage.

One of the better ways to easily become more assured that the car you are trying to buy is not water damaged is to buy it from a reputable dealer. It can be less safe to purchase a vehicle from individual owners as they could be people who sell numerous cars claiming to be private sellers to avoid basic government oversight and Lemon Law coverage requirements. Events such as online auctions tend to have a greater amount of untrustworthy sellers. It's also always better to go and see the vehicle in person. Be sure to check and ensure the vehicle identification number (VIN) matches the car’s registration and the dashboard tag in person.

Once you can physically look inside and around the vehicle, there are many signs to see if there has been potential water damage. Start with checking one of the best indicators: the spare tire compartment. Most times the components stored under the trunk or cargo area matting will not be cleaned, so they will have a water line or calcified markings. Also, any access panels in the interior should be moved, and a flashlight should be used to check as far down as possible into the cavities exposed. These areas are almost always neglected when trying to cover up water damage. Many times standing water is found by thorough inspection into hidden areas. 

More obvious and easy spots to check for water damage are in the interior of the car, where there are carpeting, cushions, and seats present. Be wary if any of these areas have mud or some rust on them, or if they have the scent of mildew or mold. If any of the upholstery or carpeting does not match or seems to be recently washed and scrubbed, make sure to take note of that in your pre-purchase inspection.

Follow this up with inspecting the electrical components for malfunctions. 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, locks, windows, and seats. If any of these are not working properly, make sure to ask about the cause of the issue. Also check to see if there is any water residue or condensation in any of the lights or on the dashboard, as there should be no water anywhere close to these areas, let alone in them. 

Once you can open the hood, look for mud, water residue, or rust in crevices near or around the engine. Rust on the heads of any exposed screws under the hood and around the doors/in the trunk is not a good sign and could indicate exposure to excess moisture. Also, if the car happens to have a paper air filter, check it if it has any water stains. If you see water stains, the car has likely been flooded in the past. While taking a look at the air filter, also check the engine oil and transmission fluid for contamination. If water exists in the engine or transmission, the oil or transmission fluid on the dipstick will look frothy, creamy, and discolored – pink instead of red for ATF, creamy instead of amber/black for oil.

The cabin air filter should be checked. If it is removed or wet, it’s good indication of flood damage.

Don't forget to do some research and use common sense. Identify the location of services on the Carfax or similar reporting. For example, if the vehicle was constantly serviced in Houston, TX for two or three years leading up to Hurricane Harvey, it is possible this vehicle fell victim to flood-conditions.

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