What’s a Flood-Damaged Car?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a car has been in a flood or hurricane.

With all the storms and floods, water-damaged cars will be flooding the used car market.

Resale of water-damaged cars passed off as OK used cars is on the rise.

Learn the warning signs and hazards of buying a flood-damaged car.

image of car submerged in flood water on town street.When you’re shopping for a used car, how do you avoid the ones that have been in floods or hurricanes? Water wrecks cars in many ways. Most vehicles involved in water disasters are declared a total loss by insurance companies. Water-damaged cars are difficult and expensive to repair – some damages can’t be repaired at all. Water damage severely limits a car’s reliability and lifespan, but it’s easy to hide the damage from most people, because who’s really thinking about water damage when they’re looking at a car?

There are expected to be almost a million vehicles damaged as a result of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. Many of these cars are being resold, either legitimately or not. If you’re in the market for a used car, you need to know what to look for and avoid being suckered into buying a nice looking car that will cost you thousands in repairs because it was under water at some point in the past.

A car damaged by water can cost you more money in the long run.

There are things you can do and look for in your own inspection of the vehicle.

Check the vehicle identification number (VIN).

Even if the paperwork says the car is legit and its history is clean, it might be forged. For a fee you can check the vehicle identification number (VIN) with a service like CarFax. It’s easy and just might save you a lot of trouble and money. The car’s VIN is usually located on an aluminum plate bolted on the dash, or on the inside of the door, secured to the frame of the car. If you can’t find the VIN anywhere, and the seller doesn’t have or know it, it’s a sure sign you should look elsewhere for the used car of your dreams.

A  VIN check report will indicate the car has been suffered damage with terms like “flood”, “salvage”, “rebuilt”, or “loss.” Keep in mind that if the seller or previous owner didn’t have the car insured in the first place – especially at the time the damage was done – then any damage might not have been reported, which means it is not in any records database and the car will appear “clean.” That’s why the next few things you can do are important.

Have a professional mechanic inspect the car.

Sure, the car looks great, the price is right, and the seller is motivated. You want to buy! First things first. Tell the seller you’re going to have the car inspected by a mechanic. If he shows any resistance, protests, or wants his mechanic to look at it, walk away. It’s your money and the seller is probably hiding something about the car.

RelatedAAMCO Used Car Pre-Purchase Inspection

Test drive the car thoroughly.

Take the car for a test drive. Don’t be afraid to not only drive it like you would drive it, but push it a little and test it in as many conditions as you can – city, highway, hills, curves, fast, slow, idling. Listen for strange sounds and be aware of vibrations, steering problems, shaking, squealing, grinding, or any other odd noises and behavior that a solid, well-maintained car should not have. Run the car’s AC and heat full blast. Test everything, especially electrical – radio included. Don’t blow the speakers, but be aware that they sometimes short out, so they can be an indicator of something wrong in the electrical system. One or two odd things might be OK (it’s a used car, after all); but when there are a number of other issues, it could mean water damage. Heck, even if not water damaged, a car with lots of issues should be avoided (unless you’re looking for a fixer upper).

How else can you tell if the car you want is water damaged?

image of graphical rendering car waterEducate yourself. If you’re looking to buy a used car anytime soon, be aware that there will probably be many more flood-damaged cars on the market in the coming months, or even years. There will always be storms, and there are things you can watch for when looking at used cars, especially if you are in or the car is from a storm-ravaged region. Water is a force of nature. It can damage or destroy anything. A water-damaged car exhibits trouble in its main systems, as well as in certain cosmetic areas.

What’s that smell?

Flooded cars oftentimes smell musty or moldy.

Water or liquid stains on the upholstery can happen even without a flood, but it’s difficult to dry the entire interior of a car after it’s been blitzed by water. You might have to get close to the carpet or the seats, but if you sniff deeply and get a hint of mildew or some other scent that reminds you of not-so-fresh water, the car has probably been through a few feet of the wet stuff (and who knows how clean that water was to begin with!). There is no air freshener on the planet that will get rid of those smells. Conversely, if the car smells like it was doused in air freshener, there is a good chance the seller is trying to cover up an odor – and probably much more.

Mold and mildew are difficult to detect and remove, especially in a car. If you somehow end up with a car that’s got a mold problem, you’ll most likely end up just having to live with it. It’s an unpleasant odor that might come and go, be less or worse depending on the weather and temperature. Short of tearing out the interior carpeting, seats, upholstery, and heading, you might be stuck with this car for a long time.

Why does the car have rust, yet it’s so new looking?

Rust and corrosion indicate possible deeper issues.

Take the time to get a good look under the car and under the hood. Look closely at things like battery connections, gas caps, inside door frames, and in wheel wells. Dirt, mud, or excess crud in odd places should be red flags. In extreme cases, you might even notice a water stain or line along the doors and panels, inside or out.

The car’s electrical system can tell you a lot, so test it.

Electrical problems are common, and oftentimes difficult to diagnose and fix.

The electrical system is one of the most costly systems to be affected by water. Check the headlights, turn signals, brake lights, reverse and license plate lights – and don’t forget the interior lights like the overhead, glove box, trunk, hood. If any dashboard lights or instruments are not working, there might be a larger electrical issue. If the car has power windows and locks, check every single one on the driver side main console and the individual door controls.

Related: AAMCO Electrical System Service

The car’s performance will show signs of trouble – but when?

Engine, transmission, exhaust, electrical – these systems and more should be checked.

Engine problems will definitely occur in water-damaged cars. Unfortunately, performance issues might not be discovered until you’ve had the car for a little while, but the potential can be detected if a thorough inspection is done prior to purchase. An engine that was once waterlogged will show its true colors eventually. Hard starting, chugging and stalling, shaking and strange noises that no engine should make – it will all come out in the wash. Water in oil lines and gas tanks is difficult and costly to fix, and most likely will cause problems for years to come. There are things that you might not discover until you’ve purchased the car, but a thorough inspection and doing your own due diligence will reduce your risk of buying a soggy lemon.

AAMCO Minnesota Can Help

image of happy female driver leaning out window showing thumbs up.It’s important to pay special attention to anything unusual or that you would not expect as you go through these steps. Take notes and schedule a pre-purchase inspection with your local AAMCO Minnesota certified mechanics to thoroughly check the car you’re interested in buying. If you’ve already bought the car and you need help diagnosing a problem, or need repairs, schedule an appointment online or call your local Minnesota AAMCO.

If you have questions about your car’s road readiness, or about car repair and maintenance topics, AAMCO Minnesota can help. Call, drop by, or book an appointment online with your friendly local Minnesota AAMCO mechanics. We’ve got service centers in Minneapolis, West St. Paul, Fridley, Hopkins, and Maplewood.

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