Telltale Signs of Water Damage
- A musty odor in the interior, which sellers sometimes try to cover with a strong air-freshener
- Upholstery or carpeting that may be loose, new, stained or doesn’t seem to match the rest of the interior
- 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
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Flood Damage Checklist
- 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 full CARFAX Vehicle History Report to check for reported flood damage or signs of salvage title fraud
- Get the car checked thoroughly by a trusted mechanic
For video footage of a flood car being cleaned up and made to look cosmetically like a good used car: https://www.carfax.com/press/video-gallery
How to Avoid Flooded Cars
More often than not, water-damaged cars are reported to insurance companies and, after an assessment process, buyers get a settlement to cover their losses. While many flooded vehicles are then sent to an 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. The truth is, refurbished flood-damaged vehicles can be difficult to identify apart without some trusted documentation.
Most of those refurbished vehicles are sold with full disclosure of the damage, but there are also some 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 out key information or deliberately work to erase the car’s history, they’ll attempt to sell the car as if it never had water damage.
While there is no absolute fail-proof technique to avoid a financially devastating purchase of a misrepresented flood vehicle, buyers can take steps to assure that the car you’re buying lives up to the seller’s promises.
Find a Reputable Seller
Well-established car 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’s 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 the car’s detailed history.
Remember to 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 dealers who will go the extra mile to guarantee that you aren’t buying a vehicle with a Salvage title.
The same rules apply if you’re buying from an individual. Once again, obtaining a Carfax vehicle history report goes a long way in confirming that the car you are purchasing is clear of flood damage. Inspecting the car’s title can also help. Check for a stamp that reads “flood” or “Salvage.”
Inspect the Interior
Once you’ve determined from the seller that the vehicle has no flood damage, confirm that by inspecting the car. 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.
Do a Smell Test
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, and even trace amounts of either one is pretty apparent once a car has been 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.
Beware 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 scent is masking.
Check for Moisture and Water Stains
If the car passes the sniff test it is time to take off the gloves and give the car’s interior a quick pat down. 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 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.
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.
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.
Check for Rust
As you are working through the car looking for moisture, check for signs of corrosion. Unfinished metal surfaces, such as 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.
Check for Mismatched Upholstery
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.
Check Under the Hood
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, and looks 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 engine’s 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.
Headlights and Tail Lights
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.
Take a Test Drive
Any vehicle purchase requires a lengthy test drive. If you are seriously considering buying a vehicle and you don’t drive it, you’re only asking for trouble. Obviously, there are exceptions: vintage vehicles might not be running for instance, but if you are purchasing a daily driver you need to drive it before buying. A part of your test drive should include testing the vehicle’s electrical systems, as they are particularly 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.
Ask an Expert
It never hurts to get a second opinion, and 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.
Bring your car to a trusted mechanic. The 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.