How to Spot a Flood-Damaged Car

There are a few things that you need to keep an eye out for to tell if the car you are going to buy has suffered from flood damage, this is especially important for vehicles from areas that have had flooding (e.g., Brisbane, 2010-11).

Checking a Car for Flood Damage

  1. Carpet that is loose, mismatched, damp, new, or stained;
  2. Rust around the doors, on the pedals, under the hood, boot latches, or under the dash;
  3. A musty smell inside the car, or excessive use of air-freshener;
  4. Mud under the carpets, in the glove box, or under the seats;
  5. Brittle wires in the engine bay, or under the dash;
  6. Moisture beads inside the interior, exterior, or instrument lights.
  7. Turn the key and check that all the instrument lights are working, they should be clear and not blurry;
  8. Test that all the interior items function properly; lights, aircon, wipers, radio, indicators, and heating system;
  9. Get the car checked by a qualified mechanic;
  10. Run a car history report with Carify.

Avoid Buying a Flood-Damaged Car

Flood-damaged cars often find themselves back on the marketplace because they can be purchased by dismantlers who later find that the vehicle is still repairable. They may then legally sell it as a working model, instead of for parts.

If you are looking for a cheap car, buying a flood-damaged car can be a good option, and most reputable companies are transparent on whether the vehicle experienced flood damage. If so, everything may not be in perfect condition. However, some dealers and private sellers may conceal the car’s history.

There is no protection for the end purchaser if they discover they have bought a car that has flood damage. Due diligence is up to the buyer to make sure the vehicle they are buying is of good value.

Finding A Good and Honest Car Salesman

Online research is an excellent start to find a good car salesperson. Look at their reviews and pick a salesman that seems to have good standing. If you see negative reviews, consider checking on the person who wrote them as they may not be reliable.

A good, stable company will often communicate with their customers and respond to reviews. If a company has been in an area for some time, it is also more likely to be a well-established business. If the operation seems to be a fly by the night operation, in an empty car lot, then you might get a good deal, but you might also end up paying for that ‘deal’ in the long run.

When you are dealing with a dealer or an individual, make sure you ask the right questions. Get a history report for the vehicle, and check it against the claims of the owner. Look for any indications that the car is ‘salvaged’, or ‘flood-affected’.

While it doesn’t matter if the seller doesn’t know something about the vehicle, if they outright lie or suggest that something hasn’t happened to the car, but it has, this is a good indication that they are untrustworthy.

How to Check for Flood Damage

Check Under the Bonnet

Open the bonnet and inspect the engine, check-in areas that may have seen debris washed in by water. Look in the pockets around the engine bay and see if these are clear. If you find anything, examine it for traces of dirt and mud; if they are relatively dry it could have been blown there, but if it is muddy then it could have been washed there.

Look around the spark-plugs. If there is dirty sediment there, then the car is most probably flood affected.

Pull up the dipstick and check the oil. In a water affected car, the oil will become murky. If you’re not sure, start the engine and run it for a bit, then recheck the dipstick, this should coat it with a fresh layer. If it still looks murky, it might be an indication to pass on the car. Although the presence of water in the oil is not necessarily a reliable indication of a flooded car, water in the oil is never a good sign. If you find any in there, you’re either up for an expensive repair or a replacement engine. If the car has a dipstick for the transmission, you should check that as well.

Open the air filter; usually, this involves unclipping the top of the filter, and check that none of the paper inside the filter has any wet spots. This is easy to tell as the paper will have changed colour and shape. If you see any signs of water damage to the filter, you should pass on the car.

Examine all of the lights, and look for signs that there has been water inside them. This will be noticeable as you’ll see beads of water or frosting on the inside of the lens. A faulty seal could cause this, but if you see it on more than one light, that could be a good sign that the car was submerged.

Inspect the Interior

After looking through the engine bay, you should move on to the interior of the vehicle.

Close all the windows to the car and just let it sit for a few minutes. Then open one of the doors and smell the car. Water will often cause mildew and mould to form, which has a distinct smell.

If the car doesn’t smell bad, having a very fragrant smell in the vehicle can also be a bad sign. Aside from water damage, the seller may be trying to hide odours caused by all manner of things. Perhaps the owners have dogs, or they're heavy smokers; either of these might still be a sign to give the car a miss.

If possible, pull up the carpet, for example, where it goes up and under the dash. Feel for dampness in the underlay, as often carpet is easy to clean and dry out, but underlay can be quite challenging to get dry and can hold moisture for many years.

Examine all the seats, especially if there are new looking seat covers attached. Stains in unusual places on the seats can mean a variety of things and depend on the age of the car could be an indication of fair use, but significant staining might be a sign of water damage.

Check the boot and lift the carpet. Look in the spare wheel well; this is where water will accumulate, and often cause rust to appear. Although it may be a sign of a poorly sealed boot, it should be on your radar as a potential problem area.

Check for rust spots in the sill and door frames that may have been caused by trapped water. Look at unfinished metal areas, like the springs underneath the seats. These will corrode quite quickly when exposed to water. Check any exposed bolts. Are they shiny and new looking or do they look like they have been sitting outside?

Check the paint job on the car. Are there any areas where the paint is bubbling? This is usually an indication of water trapped under the paint or around a seal. Not only could this be a water problem, but it could also mean a big repair job as removing rust from a panel can be expensive.

Look at the instrument panel, are there any signs that water may be trapped in there? Take a torch and thoroughly examine the glove box. If there is any debris in there, something has happened to the car. Look up, and under the dash, it should be free of any dirt or leaves.

Take a Test Drive

Never buy a car without taking it for a test drive. You need to know how the car handles and if there are any unusual noises. If you don’t take the car for a ride, it’s near impossible to tell if you're getting a good car.

After going some distance, pull up and check that all the lights work. Open the bonnet and listen for any signs that the pistons are knocking or slapping as they move inside the engine block.

When you start the car up, is there any smoke coming from the exhaust pipe? Try every accessory and check that it is fully functioning; this includes the heater and the air conditioner.

Turn on the car’s entertainment system and flick up through all the channels, check that nothing unusual is happening as it goes through the changes. Do the speakers sound distorted in any way? Speakers have paper inside them, and if they are not working as they should, this could be a sign that they have been affected by water.

Ask a Mechanic or Other Car Professional

Getting a second opinion is an excellent way to see if what you think of the car is accurate. This premium service could potentially save you a lot more money.

Most of the time, with a professional inspection, they can spot issues immediately. Sometimes, they may remove parts to determine whether the car is a suitable purchase.

Ideally, they will give you a car report that states any issues that were found. Obtaining this provides a written account of the condition of the vehicle which will help in your negotiations with the seller and in your decision to buy the car.