Advice on buying

Spotting Flood Damage When Buying a Used Car

Flood damage is an unfortunate and often unseen reality of buying a used car. Nearly half a million vehicles fall victim to flood waters from hurricanes, inland storms or overflowing canals annually in the US alone. While these cars can get cosmetically cleaned up and put on the market, water damage can cause electrical failure, corrosion, mold issues and other big mechanical problems down the road. Fortunately, there are warning signs aware car buyers can watch for.

Exterior Inspection Start by doing a comprehensive visual inspection of both the outside and underside of the car. Check for things like:

  • Rust, corrosion or flaking metal especially around doors, wheel wells, undercarriage.
  • Mud, silt, vegetation or debris stuck in nooks and crannies or under carpets.
  • Misaligned body panels and doors. Flood waters can shift things out of alignment.
  • Moisture in headlights/taillights and foggy/overly worn lenses.
  • Damp or musty smells coming from vents while running AC or heat.

Many shady sellers will meticulously clean the car’s exterior and interior but neglect the less visible areas underneath. It’s important to poke your head under with a flashlight. Watch for mud or water lines in the engine compartment or any signs of rust bubbling under layers of new undercoating.

Interior Inspection

Water damage smells and stains may permeate the interior cabin materials long after flooding occurs. Be on high alert for problems like:

  • Visible water stains on seats, carpet or upholstered panels.
  • Damp or foul musty smells from mold and mildew.
  • Peeling paint or upholstery around seat brackets or door panels.
  • Rust deposits and excessive dirt inside control panels, vents or radio casing.
  • Condensation or fogging inside instrument cluster gauges and LCD screens.

While visual evidence helps, smells often give it away most. Take time to air out the parked car on a hot sunny day then recheck for any lingering odor. Just a whiff of that moldy flood stench is reason enough to walk away.

Mechanical & Electrical Systems

Moving to under the hood, flooded engines often prematurely fail due to extensive corrosion and component damage over time after drying out. Warning signs unique to water damage include:

  • Rust or darkened sediments in the oil dipstick.
  • White, chalky corrosion on visible copper wiring, fuse box or battery terminals.
  • Gritty feeling potentiometers and switches. Sediment can bind up controls like wipers or power seats.
  • Inoperable electronic features like keyless entry, infotainment system or AC blower motor.

Take it for an extensive test drive checking all systems thoroughly. Any graniness or grinding in the drivetrain, trouble shifting, starter troubles or electrical quirks point to larger looming issues.

Professional Pre-Purchase Inspections

Of course the average used car shopper lacks X-ray vision to see deeper mechanical issues or dismantle dash components. That really calls for an unbiased professional shop to check out the car first. For roughly $100-$200, specialty auto inspectors will conduct over 125-point bumper-to-bumper assessments looking specifically for past collision damage, flood exposure, odometer fraud and any deal-breaking defects. They also scan computers for hidden error codes and can perform additional moisture tests like:

  • Carpet or upholstery moisture probes to detect high humidity.
  • Electrical wiring harness and connector corrosion tests.
  • Pressure testing air conditioning systems which commonly leak after flooding.

Having a professional pre-purchase inspection gives home car shoppers serious peace of mind before handing over the cash. In the end, signs of flood exposure should wave a bright red flag. Comprehensive cleaning can mask issues for months or even years before serious safety and mechanical problems emerge. Know what to look for and when to just walk away with help from the pros.

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