Hurricanes, Floods, and How Not to End Up Owning a Flood Damaged Car

Following one of the worst hurricane seasons in years and record-setting rainfall in many areas of the country, flooding has taken its toll on vehicles. A huge number of vehicles have been declared total losses due to flood damage and are now in the salvage vehicle pool. Unfortunately, many will find their way onto auto dealer lots as well as offered for sale in the private sector,

It is important for those considering the purchase of a used vehicle to be car care aware and check for signs of water intrusion or contamination, says the non-profit Car Care Council.

“Purchasing a used vehicle and later learning it has been flood damaged can be very problematic and lead to costly issues down the road. Worst yet, these vehicles can be unhealthy to occupy because of mold and bacteria growing in the carpet and ventilation system,” said Rich White, executive director, Car Care Council.

Here are some steps you can take when purchasing a used car to avoid water damaged vehicle:

  • Take the sniff test.Close all the windows and doors and let the car sit for about five minutes then crack open a door and sniff. Mildew and mold have very distinctive smells and it doesn’t take long for that smell to present itself.
  • Try the touch test.Get some paper towels and press them against the low spots in the carpet. The paper towels will draw the moisture out and reveal if the carpet is wet under the surface. Some carpets can be several inches thick to insulate from heat and sound. If the paper towel becomes wet it could mean water has gotten into the car.
  • Investigate the interior.Look under the seats and dash for corrosion and rust and look for exposed metal that is untreated. There are metal springs under the front seats that are usually not painted. If they are rusted that is a sign the interior has been wet. Look for mud and debris in places it does not belong.
  • Inspect the instrument panel. Turn on the key and perform a bulb test. Make sure every bulb lights up. If a system has an issue, removing the warning bulb can hide it. Many times vehicles that have flooded have malfunctions in their anti-brake and air bag systems. Ensuring the light comes on and then goes out after the bulb test is an indicator that the system is on and has no active faults.
  • Check for condensation. Look for condensation in headlamps, tail lamps, and instrument panel.
  • Take it to a professional.Let a service and repair technician inspect your vehicle. They can raise the car and look underneath to see if there is any mud, sticks or rocks in the suspension, undercarriage, or inside body cavities. A professional can check the oil in the differentials to make sure they contain no water in them. Spend a few dollars to have it looked over to give you peace of mind.
  • Check vehicle title status. Many states permanently brand the title of a vehicle that has been declared a total loss. Before purchasing a used car, make sure the title is not branded. The title of a branded vehicle will be stamped “Prior Salvage”, “Total Loss, or similar declarations. Lack of branding does not insure that the vehicle has not been a total loss due to flooding because the car my have come from a state that does not require vehicle branding. But checking the title status will greatly decrease your chances of getting stuck with a flood damaged purchase.
  • Use CARFAX. CARFAX is another tool to avoid flood damaged vehicles. Like title branding, not all flood totals are captured. But it will improve your odds.

The Car Care Council is the source of information for the “Be Car Care Aware” consumer education campaign promoting the benefits of regular vehicle care, maintenance and repair to consumers. For a copy of the council’s Car Care Guide or for more information, visit