Key takeaways

  • Flood and other water damage can have lasting impacts on the mechanical and electrical systems of any vehicle.
  • A vehicle history report is a crucial component of a used car purchase because it shows previous problems and discrepancies in ownership.
  • If the flood damage wasn’t reported to an insurance company, the vehicle may not have a salvage title.
  • Hire a professional mechanic to inspect the car for any undisclosed water damage.

Car buyers throughout the nation can experience the aftereffects of destructive floods by unknowingly purchasing water-damaged cars. New and used vehicles damaged by significant flood events, like Hurricane Idalia and major tropical storms in 2023, can find their way onto the market.

Carfax data estimates as many as 358,000 vehicles may have been damaged by Hurricane Ian in 2023 — in addition to the over 400,000 vehicles with water damage already on the road. With another potentially aggressive hurricane season on the way, this number is bound to increase.

When flood-impacted cars are resold, unsuspecting buyers often face expensive mechanical and electrical problems that surface months later. Even if you don’t live in a region where flooding is common, you can still inadvertently purchase a car that has water damage. Carfax research shows that water-damaged vehicles appear in every state, meaning buyers from coast to coast are at risk of purchasing a flood-damaged car.

Because of this, you should always get a vehicle history report and an inspection when you buy a used vehicle.

4 tips to avoid buying a flooded car

If you suspect that a vehicle may have water or flood damage, thoroughly research its history and request a pre-purchase inspection from a trusted mechanic. A pre-purchase inspection is key to getting the best auto loan rate, but it is even more important when you are checking for water or flood damage.

1. Run a vehicle history report

Running a vehicle history report can help uncover issues with a car before you make a purchase. Most states will either issue a salvage or flood title to a vehicle that was declared totaled. These are permanent title marks for vehicles that have been badly damaged by floods. Depending on the state, a salvage title may also be indicated by a numeric code.

Carfax and AutoCheck offer flood check tools that allow users to conduct a free check on the history of a car based on its VIN. When reviewing a car’s history, keep your eye out for vehicles originating from areas that have been affected by flooding. The National Insurance Crime Bureau also provides free online VIN checks that allow consumers to find out whether a car has been declared salvaged.

Review a vehicle’s history report for any sign that the car has changed hands several times over a short period of time. Be particularly leery of a history that involves buyers in multiple states. This could be a sign of what’s known as title washing, where unscrupulous sellers retitle a car repeatedly to hide its history.

Car Outline
Bankrate tip

To avoid the headaches of a water-damaged car, you can opt for a certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicle. These are thoroughly inspected, sold directly by the manufacturer and often come with their own warranty. While they tend to be more expensive than other used vehicles, these newer used cars come with much more peace of mind, especially if you live in an area frequently impacted by floods.

2. Check for signs of water damage

Cars that have been even partially submerged in water often have telltale signs, but they may be subtle if the car has been cleaned up for resale. Pay attention to musty or moldy smells, including those coming from the climate control system.

Note any stains in the car’s interior, engine compartment and trunk. Dirt, sand or mud in odd places and seat belts that sound gritty when they are pulled or retracted are also signs of water damage.

It’s also important to test drive every vehicle. Check for compromised electrical systems and infotainment systems, which will act up if they have been impacted by water. Look for signs of engine smoke during your test drive — and know that this is a major red flag that means you should walk away.

3. Be wary of cars that are priced below market value

According to Kelley Blue Book, there is still a limited supply of used cars on the market. However, prices have been relatively stable through the first quarter of 2024. The average used car sold for about $25,500 in April, largely because a competitive auto loan rate is still difficult for many buyers to qualify for.

Check the typical selling price for the car you are considering buying on independent vehicle pricing sites such as Edmunds and Autotrader. A new or used car priced well below market value is a strong indicator the seller is anxious to get rid of it. In the current sales environment, it may be a red flag that something is wrong.

Bankrate tip

If you want to avoid the risk of buying a flood vehicle altogether, consider buying a new vehicle over a used one.

Be careful when a car is being listed for a significant discount. In addition to asking questions about why the car is being offered for much less than it should be, have the vehicle looked at by a professional who can identify any flood damage.

4. Get a professional inspection

It’s always a good idea to hire a certified mechanic or automotive technician to look over a car before you buy it, but it’s even more critical to take this step to protect yourself from a potentially water-damaged car.

A professional can help ease your mind, especially if the car you are considering has one or more common warning signs. Be sure that the inspection not only includes obvious signs of water damage but also a thorough test of all the electrical equipment. Problems with these systems can take months to surface on their own.

Inspections typically cost anywhere from $100 to $150, depending on your area. And while a pre-purchase inspection will typically have to be paid for by you, it will be money well spent if it prevents you from buying a car that won’t last.

Common problems with flooded cars

Water-damaged cars can be hard to spot. They often look fine and may even run well. Eventually, however, you are likely to face problems. Flooded cars break down from the inside out, though there are some signs that a car may have water damage:

  • Musty odor: The interior of water-damaged cars will often smell musty. Unscrupulous sellers may try to hide the scent with powerful air fresheners, but it can be very difficult to truly rid a car of a mold or mildew scent. Test how a car smells by sitting inside with the windows closed.
  • Moist or damp carpeting: Water damage can collect in places you don’t immediately see, like underneath carpeting. Feel the carpets throughout the car and pat them to locate moisture buildup. Check the trunk as well, including removing the spare tire to check for water or rust beneath it.
  • Stained or mismatched upholstery and carpeting: Yet another sign of water damage is a car with loose or stained upholstery and carpeting. Look for blotchy, brown stains and compare floor carpeting to the upholstery on the doors and the roof. They should all look to be of similar age and color. Recently replaced upholstery may also be a sign of previous water damage.
  • Rust: A vehicle with water damage may have rust around the doors, inside the hood or under the dashboard. Screws, door hinges, trunk latches and door handles may also show signs of rusting.
  • Brittle wires: Check under the dashboard if you suspect a car may have water damage. Brittle wires can indicate that the vehicle has been impacted by a water event of some type.
  • Fog or moisture beads: If a vehicle’s interior lights, instrument panel or exterior lights look foggy or have moisture beads inside them, consider it a warning sign that the vehicle may have water damage.
  • Mud or silt buildup: During flood events, water can carry mud and dirt into a vehicle. Once the flood is gone, the dirt will remain. Some of the places to check for mud and silt include the glove compartment, trunk, under the dashboard and below the seats.
  • Faulty electronics: Water damage will have lasting impacts on the electric system of any vehicle. Interior and exterior lights, wipers and turn signals should be tested. In addition, confirm that the audio system or infotainment system all function properly.

What to do if you bought a water-damaged car

If you’ve purchased a vehicle that has water damage, all may not be lost. It is possible to repair the vehicle with an experienced mechanic. But remember, these are not do-it-yourself fixes. It will require a professional who has extensive knowledge of cars.

It’s also worth remembering that repairing a flood-damaged vehicle will not be cheap, so determine whether the car is worth the investment, especially since flood-damaged cars typically have no resale value.

Dealerships are required to disclose — either verbally or in writing — if a car has a salvage title. If not, it may be a case of dealer fraud. You may be able to seek legal recourse but know that this can be a lengthy and expensive process. It may be best to speak with an attorney to sort out the specifics of your situation.

The bottom line

Flood-damaged vehicles are in use in every state across this country. If you suspect a car may have been impacted by water damage, there are several steps to take, including running a vehicle history report, looking for telltale signs and having the car inspected by a professional. Remember, even if you don’t live in an area impacted by flooding, you could unknowingly end up with a water-damaged vehicle.