Flooding damages thousands of cars every year, but those waterlogged cars come back up on the used car market. Here’s how to identify a flood-damaged car.
Thousands of cars are damaged by flooding every year. You may be asking yourself “how bad can a little water be to a car?” Pretty bad. Flooding can damage a vehicle’s electrical system, waterlog the engine, completely saturate the interior, and result in structural damage from collisions as it’s pushed by the flow of water. Flooding doesn’t just stop at the initial damage though. These flood-damaged cars end up having to deal with growing mold, accelerated rust, and a multitude of other headaches as a result of water getting where it shouldn’t.
More often than not, these flood-damaged cars are considered total losses and receive a branded title for a history of flood damage. This title brand is visible in Vehicle History Reports and should act as a giant red flag if encountered on the used market. While utilizing a service like Carsforsale.com’s free Vehicle History Reports will point out that a car has flood damage in its reported history right away, there are some instances where knowing what to look for can help.
Sometimes flood damage may not be reported and won’t show up in the report. Other times you may be looking at a used car from a seller that won’t disclose the VIN to run a Vehicle History Report (which should be a pretty big red flag in and of itself). Or maybe you’ve noticed the title brand and are deciding to see how significant the underlying damage really is. Whatever the case, we’ve compiled some key signs to look for when identifying and assessing a flood-damaged car.
There are a number of items you can look at to identify a history of flood damage here, but we’re doing more than just a visual inspection. Don’t be afraid to get dirty as you’re going to need to get on the ground and look under the vehicle, touch surfaces, interact with substances, plus you’ll need to get your sniffer ready too.
Having a keen eye around the exterior can help identify a possible water line from a flood. This may be visible as a discoloration part way up the paint or even on the metal inside the engine bay. You should also take a look at the headlights and taillights for fogging as a result of moisture being trapped inside. There may also be signs of water still pooled in areas like the wheel well liner, inside the doors, or in the spare wheel compartment.
Rust is always a big issue to look for on cars, but it’s even more common on flood-damaged cars. Not only will rust look bad, but it can actually compromise the structural integrity of the vehicle. Check for surface rust along the bottom of the vehicle, in the wheel wells, in the engine bay, on any major components, and also inside the vehicle. If you’re finding rust under the seats, under the dashboard, in the footwells, or on any sort of metal surface in the interior, then that’s a pretty big sign that the car had water actually fill the cabin.
Water doesn’t just fill the cabin when it floods, it can also get in the engine. Water in the engine can lead to performance issues, blockages, and rusting internally. One way to check if water has gotten into the engine is by checking the oil. Pop the hood, pull out the dipstick, and take a look at the oil. The oil should take on a dark amber color if it is unaffected. If water has gotten in and mixed with the oil though, it will take on a paler, somewhat chocolate milk looking color.
The air filter can help identify water damage too. Pop the engine’s air intake cover off and take a look at the filter. There may be a significant collection of debris from flood water coming in (or from an unrelated rodent). If it’s a paper filter, you may notice some water stains from having had water soak into the filter. The filter also acts somewhat like a sponge and could still feel moist to the touch. A wet filter can actually choke the engine and, since the water is still retained in the filter, can actually continue to spread water throughout the engine if not changed.
While you’re looking over a vehicle for flood-damage, one key detail you may find is debris in odd places. When a car is flooded, all kinds of dirt and sand flows into the vehicle along with the water. Once the water level drops, these foreign substances remain in the car. You might find this built-up debris in the door jams, in the trunk, in the carpet, under the seats, or even in storage compartments like the center console. It could be chalked up to just having an unkempt previous owner, but keep it in mind if you’re finding any of the other flood-damaged car signs from this list.
You might notice this one right when you open the door of a flood-damaged car – the smell. That moldy or musty odor can be the result of the stagnant flood water still having a presence in the vehicle and a sign of mildew buildup from the moisture. Sellers may try and cover the smell with a car freshener, but it’s nearly impossible to completely remove that smell even after the deepest of cleans.
Feel around on the interior carpet, along the upholstery, and squish those seat cushions. Water from a flood can still remain soaked into the car’s interior materials. If there’s still some obvious water inside the vehicle, then that previously mentioned smell is never leaving.
Even if the interior has dried, you can still find evidence of water damage through the interior materials. There may be apparent water staining on the upholstery around the vehicle. The previous owner may have tried to correct any water stains with cleaners which can be identified by off-color or faded patches. There may even be blatant patches of slightly off carpet that’s been sown in place of a water-stained area. The one that might trip you up is that the entire carpet has been replaced, so brand-new looking carpet in a vehicle that’s older than five years should raise your suspicions slightly.
Another issue is the ineffectiveness of the interior adhesives after having been waterlogged. The headliner might be sagging, the carpet may seem loose from the floor in some areas, or the carpet might actually be curling at the corner revealing the bare metal underneath (which may potentially show additional rust on the floor pan too).
We already mentioned the clear plastic of the headlights and taillights showing a fogginess from resulting moisture, but this continues on the inside. If you notice that areas like the clear plastic over gauge cluster have a foggy appearance, this means that flood water was able to reach that area and there’s still moisture trapped inside.
Water and electrical components don’t mix, so having flood water reach the fuse box, computer, or any number of electronics in today’s vehicles can result in damage. One way to check for water damage before starting the vehicle is by taking a look at the wiring. If the wires seem brittle, that can be a sign of them having been submerged in water for a bit. Be sure to take note of any fraying or cracks in the wire enamel as a result of this brittle state.
Next up is turning the car on. Be sure to use all your senses when you turn that key. Smell for any smoke, as that can mean there’s a short in the electrical system. Listen for any knocking, straining, or other odd sounds when the car starts up and while idling. Also take a look at the gauge cluster to see if any warning lights come on, or even if any lights come on. You’ll want to test everything that the vehicle can do. Mess with everything from the infotainment system, to the power seats, to the lighting. Do it all. After you’ve assessed any oddities, take it for a quick spin. There may not be warning lights on startup, but some may not pop up until you start driving the car around.
If you’ve performed all these steps and you’re still unsure, take it to a professional. There are plenty of local mechanics that are willing to assess your potential purchase and will identify any undisclosed damage they find.
Knowing the signs of a flood-damaged car is a great way to give yourself an edge while shopping, but so is working with Carsforsale.com. Our site is full of great dealerships that are looking to help you find your next great vehicle. Plus, we provide customers on our site with free Vehicle History Reports in association with the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). This way, you get a free, fast, and easy way to find out if the car you’re looking at has a history of flood damage along with tons of other important historical information. Start shopping with peace of mind today on Carsforsale.com!