Avoiding Flood Damaged Cars

One of the many risks of buying a used car is that you don't know its history. Sellers have an arsenal of supplies and tactics to dress up a used car, even if it has been severely damaged. Flood-damaged cars fall into this category.

If you're thinking of buying a used car, be sure to know how to recognize water damage from flooding.

Dangers of Flooded 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 flooded.

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

Flood Damaged Cars & Salvage Titles

Cars 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 about the nature of the damage on a salvage title car, and walk away if it's been flooded. No matter the price, that will never be a good deal.

Signs of a Flood-Damaged Car


Use your common senses to sniff out water damage on a car. The most obvious signs of flood damage are the same as anywhere: smell and watermarks. If you pick up a damp, mildewy scent, 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.


Water damage is sometimes visible. Think of what happens to fabric, like on a couch, when you spill a glass of water. Even dry, that ring 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.

Electrical and Mechanical Components

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

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

You may also feel a difference in the ride when you test drive the car. The engine may not run as smoothly.

Additional Tips

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.

You should also consider purchasing a vehicle history report. This step helps you know where the car has been and whether it was in any accidents—separate from flooding—that could impact its value and safety.

Even armed with this knowledge, it's not always easy to spot a flood-damaged car. Your best bet: avoid buying used cars from recently flooded areas.

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