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How to avoid buying a water-damaged car

Silver sedan caught in flooded field
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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 Ida in 2021, can find their way to the market in the aftermath of a storm. Carfax data shows that as many as 212,000 vehicles may have been damaged by Hurricane Ida, and when these 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 also shows that water-damaged vehicles appear in every state, meaning buyers from coast to coast are at risk of purchasing a flood-damaged car.  

How to tell if a car has water damage 

A water-damaged car can be hard to spot. These vehicles often look fine and may even run well for a little while. But eventually you are likely to face problems. Carfax spokesperson Chris Basso says flooded cars in particular rot from the inside out and the damage is often difficult for the untrained eye to detect. 

Some of the signs that a car may have water damage include: 

  • 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 moldy aroma. One way to test how a car smells is to sit inside and close the windows. 
  • Moist or damp carpeting: Water damage can collect in places you don’t immediately see such as underneath a vehicle’s carpeting. Feel the carpets throughout the car and pat them to try and locate any potential moisture buildup. The search for moisture should include the trunk as well, even removing the spare tire to check for water beneath it. 
  • Stained or mismatched upholstery and carpeting: Yet another telltale sign of water damage is a car with loose or stained upholstery and carpeting. Look for blotchy, brown stains, which are signs of water damage. When conducting visual inspections, also be sure to compare floor carpeting to the upholstery on the doors and the roof. They should all look to be of similar age and color.  
  • Rust: A vehicle with water damage may have rust around the doors, inside the hood or even under the dashboard. Other places that may show signs of rusting include screws, door hinges, trunk latches and even door handles. 
  • Brittle wires: Check under the dashboard if you suspect a car may have water damage. Brittle wires can indicate that the vehicle has indeed 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 specifically, water can carry mud and dirt into a vehicle. And 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 seats.  

4 tips to avoid buying a flooded car 

If you suspect that a vehicle may have water or flood damage, it’s important to do your homework and find out whether your instincts are correct. There are many tools available to help you get to the bottom of this important question, as well as signs to be alert for. 

1. Run a vehicle history report  

Running a vehicle history report can help uncover potential issues with a car before you make a purchase. A clear sign of a water-damaged car is one that is branded as such. DMVs require permanent title marks for all vehicles that have been badly damaged by floods. If the vehicle was declared totaled, it is supposed to be given a new title entirely that is labeled “salvage” or “flood.” Depending on the state, however, this fact may be indicated by a numeric code. 

Both Carfax and Experian offer flood check tools that allow users to conduct a free check on the history of a car you own or are considering buying. These platforms simply require entering the VIN of the vehicle in question. When reviewing a car’s history, keep your eye out for vehicles that originate from areas that have recently 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 a salvage. 

You will also want to look at 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 car “title washing,” where unscrupulous sellers retitle a car repeatedly to hide its history. 

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, especially 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 that appear on 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 a vehicle, especially one you think may have water or flood damage. Hints to watch out for during a test drive include compromised electrical systems and infotainment systems, which will act up if they have been impacted by water. You’ll also want to look for signs of smoke during your test drive. 

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

There’s a reason for the adage about things being too good to be true. Check the market value of the car you are considering at several independent vehicle pricing sites. A new or used car priced below market value is a strong indicator the seller is anxious to get rid of it. Buyers should tread cautiously. 

4. Get a professional inspection  

It’s always a good idea to hire a trusted mechanic or pay for a vehicle inspection service to thoroughly look over a car before you buy it, but it’s even more critical to take this step in order to protect yourself from a possibly water-damaged car. 

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

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 bearing in mind that repairing a flood-damaged vehicle will not be cheap. It can cost $12,000 or more depending on what needs to be repaired. So, you will want to determine whether the vehicle is worth the investment. Especially since flood-damaged cars typically have no resale value. 

The bottom line 

Flood-damaged vehicles are in use in every state across this country. Even if you don’t live in an area impacted by flooding, you could unknowingly end up with a car with water damage if you’re not aware of the telltale signs. A musty odor, damp or mismatched carpeting and rust are just a few of the clues that a vehicle may have water damage. 

If you suspect a car may have been impacted by flooding or some other type of water event there are several steps to take including running a vehicle history report and having the car inspected by a professional. As a consumer, it is important to be vigilant because unknowingly buying a car with water damage can end up costing you thousands of dollars over the sale price. 

Written by
Mia Taylor
Former Contributing Writer
Mia Taylor is a former contributor to Bankrate and an award-winning journalist who has two decades of experience and worked as a staff reporter or contributor for some of the nation's leading newspapers and websites including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the San Diego Union-Tribune, TheStreet, MSN and Credit.com.
Edited by
Auto loans editor