Avoiding Flood Damaged Cars

Flood-damaged cars are very unreliable vehicles. While vehicle rebuilders may be able to hide most of the cosmetic flood damage, it is very difficult to completely fix an engine that has been in or under water.

The car may look decent on the outside, but could be rusting from the inside—putting you and your passengers in danger, and putting you at risk for costly repairs.

Vehicles that have undergone damage from a flood are frequently considered a total loss and, if refurbished, will carry with them a salvage title. A salvage title is an important indicator of a car that has had serious damage. Buying a salvage title car isn't always a bad idea, but buying a flooded car is.

Don't be afraid to ask your dealer for a vehicle history report or consider purchasing a report on the vehicle of choice. You should also consider purchasing a vehicle history report if one isn't available. Always be leery if you ask for a report and the dealer won't provide one for review. This step helps you know where the car has been and whether it was in any accidents—that could impact its value and safety. If the price is too good to be true? In most cases it usually is. Most lenders including Langley FCU will not finance a vehicle with a blemished title.

Signs of a Flood-Damaged Vehicle


Water damage is sometimes visible. Think of what happens to fabric on a couch when you spill a glass of water. Even dry, the water stain never goes away. Look for those marks on all the interior fabrics of the used car, including:

  • Rugs
  • Upholstery
  • Ceiling fabric
  • Seat belts

You should also keep an eye out for recently updated fabric. A new rug on an older car, or non-matching fabrics/upholstery, can be red flags.

Sometimes you will also see mud or silt left over from the flood. This and other debris get caught in all the nooks and crannies of a car, and are hard to clean out. Be sure to check under the rugs, seats, and spare tire in the trunk for any pooling water or muddy residue. Headlights also trap moisture, so don't forget to take a close look at those.

Rust can also be a sign of water damage that is hard to conceal. Rust on the inside of the car will be especially telling since that is one place rust shouldn't show up through normal wear and tear.


Use your senses to sniff out water damage in a car. The most obvious signs of flood damage are the scent and watermarks. If you detect a damp or mildew smell, or perfume-like scent that might be covering something, be suspicious of where the car has been.

That smell is strongest if the car has been sitting with its windows closed for a while. Equally telling is the opposite smell of cleaning agents and car fresheners trying to mask the mold.

Electrical and Mechanical Components

A car with extensive water damage may have problems with its electrical components. Test out every electrical element, including:

  • Windows
  • Seats
  • Blinkers
  • A/C
  • Radio

The engine might not ride as smoothly as it should. Make sure you compare several vehicles on test drives when you are making your decision.

Regardless of whether you suspect flood damage, there are steps you should always take when shopping for a used car. First, consider paying a little extra to have an experienced and trustworthy mechanic look over the car for you.