By Chris Brewer
Last Updated 11/10/2015
In more ways than one, water is your car's best friend. The cooling system uses the stuff to regulate engine temperatures and regular use of a soapy bucket of H20 and a sponge can go a long way toward keeping your pride and joy looking tip-top.
Unfortunately, water can also be your vehicles worst enemy. Damaging flood waters can render a valuable automobile worthless in a matter of seconds.
More often than not, flood damaged cars are reported to insurance agencies and through an assessment process the buyer receives compensation to cover losses. While many flooded vehicles are then sent to the auto recycler for dismantling, other vehicles are branded by state agencies as flood damaged and a salvage title is assigned. Once identified, flood damaged cars can once again enter the sales market, showing up on dealer lots or in driveways with for sale signs on the windshield. The truth is, once refurbished flood damaged vehicles can be difficult to identify apart from trusted documentation.
While the majority of those refurbished vehicles are sold with full disclosure of the damage, there are also unscrupulous companies and individuals who will attempt to profit at the expense of others by withholding information or intentionally hiding a car's history through a process called "title washing." Whether they simply leave information off the table or deliberately work to erase the car's history, they will attempt to sell the vehicle as if it never went for a damaging swim.
While there is no absolute fail-proof silver bullet technique to avoid a financially devastating purchase of a misrepresented flood vehicle, steps can be taken to assure that the car you are buying lives up to all the seller's promises and hype.
Car shopping is already stressful. Many of my friends and family rank it up there with doctor's visits and public speaking. You've done hours of research online, consulted friends and family, window shopped at parking lots and in traffic, and settled on a particular model or two. You've decided that a new vehicle is out of reach financially or perhaps you want to buy an upscale luxury car that is fiscally attainable if it is a couple years old. Now what?
Interestingly, the answer is the same one that I would offer to anyone trying to avoid a flood damaged vehicle: find a reputable seller.
Well-established dealerships are not in business for short term financial profit. If your community has a family-owned dealer that has been in the same location for three decades, there is a good chance they aren't going to risk everything to make a few quick dollars selling misrepresented flood vehicles. Most great dealerships will add the extra security of providing you with a CARFAX Vehicle History Report that clearly documents a detailed history of the vehicle. This high level of transparency along with recommendations from other customers can go a long way in assuring that a potential vehicle purchase is clear of hidden damage. Ask good questions; specifically inquire if the vehicle was ever damaged in a flood. Get your answers in writing and if the seller is unwilling to provide clear evidence, move on. There are plenty of other dealers who are more than willing to go the extra mile to guarantee that you aren't buying a salvaged title.
The same basic rules work when buying from an individual. Once again, obtaining a vehicle history report goes a long way in confirming that the car you are purchasing is clear of flood damage. Inspecting the title can also help. Check for a stamp that reads "flood" or "salvage." Ask pointed questions and be cynical at a direct ratio to the amount that you are planning to invest. In other words, if you are buying a 10-year-old convertible from your neighbor for $1,500, you can avoid the painfully bright incandescent light interrogation techniques, but if you're buying a $25,000 late model sedan it's important to be diligent.
Once you've determined from the seller that the vehicle is clear of flood damage, take a little time to confirm the reports by inspecting the car firsthand. The following steps are simple to work through and will provide yet another level of confidence before you hand over your cash. Thoroughly inspecting for flood damage has a secondary benefit of offering a systematic approach for examining the vehicle for other potential deal-breaking, non-flood related issues.
The easiest flood damage test is also the most telling. Close all the windows and doors let the car sit for a few minutes and then crack open the door a take a good sniff. Mildew and mold have a distinct smell, even trace amounts of either one is pretty apparent if the car is sealed. If you have a friend or family member who regularly complains about smells that everyone else seems oblivious to, bring them along. The "Do you smell that?" question they frequently ask might save you thousands of dollars.
You should also beware of cars that smell too good, since a spray-on fabric freshener can mask odors. If the 5-year-old minivan smells like "fresh mountain rain" make sure that it really isn't actually flood waters that the scent is masking.
If the car passes the sniff test it is time to take off the gloves and give the car's interior a good rub down. Like a suspicious passenger at the TSA line in the airport, a quick pat down can reveal potentially damaging hidden issues. Damp spots under the seats are of particular interest; if you can lift the carpet and inspect the padding, even better. While it is easy to dry the carpet's surface, foam or jute padding can retain moisture for years.
During your inspection look for previous water damage evidence by blotchy water stains. Just remember, stains do not necessarily mean the vehicle has been in a flood. Any parent of a toddler can attest to that.
Don't forget to check the trunk, either. Take out the spare tire and check for moisture or sitting water. While there is a slight chance of a bad seal around the trunk lid, water or debris found in the trunk area is a good sign that your potential purchase went for a swim.
As you are working through the car looking for moisture, check for signs of corrosion. Unfinished metal surfaces, like the springs hidden underneath many vehicle seats, will corrode even if the car was only under water for a short time. Look at the ends of exposed bolts. Are they shiny and new or do they look like they've been sitting outside? Door jambs and any other areas where water can sit will be especially telling. Bubbling of the paint in areas not exposed to the elements should be taken seriously; even if the car wasn't in a flood you could be looking at extensive rust damage that may cause a vehicle to fail inspections and be dangerous to drive.
Take a good look at the vehicle's instrument panel. Is there trapped moisture behind the plastic lenses? Check the glove box for moisture and debris. Grab a flashlight and look in the console and under the dashboard.
The car smells great, seems rust free and is dry as a bone, now what? While there is a good chance that the vehicle is just fine, don't rule out the chance that parts or all of the carpet or interior have been replaced to hide damage. If a section of the carpet or upholstery is a different shade or has less wear than the surrounding fabric, there may be a reasonable explanation, but it may be the sign of undisclosed refurbishment. Once again, cars get dirty and worn and a dealer looking for top profits may replace worn carpet or seating surfaces, but they will be proud of this fact and disclose it quickly and earnestly. What we are looking for is inconsistencies and exposing potential secrets or unknowns.
The vehicle's interior is the best place to start, but tell-tale signs of water damage can also reside under the hood. Look for debris that may have washed in and deposited itself in the engine bay's nooks and crannies. Anyone who enjoys a shade tree covering their driveway knows that leaves often sneak into the oddest places, but finding unexplained leaves, silt and sand inside the spark plug wire cavities is concerning and likely the result of flood waters.
While you are under the hood check the engine oil by pulling the dipstick. When oil mixes with even a small amount of water it becomes murky, like a melted chocolate milkshake. If the oil looks a little suspicious start the car and check it again, sometimes the water will settle above the oil if the car has been sitting for a while and turning the engine over will whip it all back up into a tell-tale mess. It is important to note that any water in the oil is a bad sign. Even if the car has not been in a flood, water in the engine oil may be a sign of major mechanical damage. Either way, if the oil looks like it is dripping with melted ice cream, you should move on. If the vehicle is equipped with a transmission dip stick, check that too.
Take a few minutes and inspect the paper air filter. Most cars only require a few clips to be undone or some screws to be removed to expose the filter. Once paper is wet it never looks the same. Think of it as that little strip in your cellphone that turns pink if you drop it in a puddle. If the filter shows signs of water stains you will want to keep looking for another vehicle.
After you've inspected the interior and under the hood, take a walk around the vehicle and look for signs of moisture in the light fixtures. While it may well be a leaking seal, fogged up lights are a good sign that the vehicle was submerged under water. Get close and inspect for tiny drilled holes that may have been added to drain flood water.
Any vehicle purchase requires a lengthy test drive. If you are seriously considering buying a vehicle and you don't drive it, you are only asking for trouble. Obviously there are exceptions, non-running vintage vehicles for instance, but if you are purchasing a daily driver you need to drive it before making a purchase. A part of your test drive should include testing the vehicle's electrical systems, as they are prone to water damage.
When you start the car do you notice any smoke or odd smells? Listen for irregular noises, such as strained warning buzzers. Try every accessory to see if it works properly, including turn signals, windshield wipers, headlight switches and high beams. If you can switch it on or off, you should. Does everything work properly? Turn on the vehicle's entertainment system and listen to the audio. Like the air filter, paper speaker cones don't take to water very well. If the audio is distorted or the system doesn't work, it could be the sign that the car was once being used as a boat.
If you've reached this point in the guide and you're thinking, "What did I get myself into?" take heart. There are reputable experts available to inspect your potential vehicle purchase for a small fee. Often, they can spot water damage in minutes, but if the car is particularly suspect they may remove a door panel or check hidden electrical or mechanical components to see if there is evidence that the original refurbishment might have missed.
Bringing your car to a trusted mechanic is a good idea regardless. The nominal upfront costs will pale in comparison to the financial devastation that can result in buying a car that is worth less money than you paid or worse, is dangerous to drive.
• A musty odor in the interior, which can sometimes be covered with a strong air-freshener
• Upholstery or carpeting which is loose, new, stained or doesn't match
• Damp carpets
• Rust around doors, under the dashboard, on the pedals or inside the hood and trunk latches
• Mud or silt in the glove compartment or under the seats
• Brittle wires under the dashboard
• Fog or moisture beads in the interior lights, exterior lights or instrument panel
• Turn on the ignition and check all instrument panel lights illuminate
• Test the interior and exterior lights, air conditioning, windshield wipers, radio, turn signals and heater repeatedly
• View the CARFAX Vehicle History Report for reported flood damage or signs of salvage title fraud
• Get the car checked thoroughly by a trusted mechanic
• Use your VIN to get a free CARFAX Flood Damage Check