Hurricane Season is always a time to be concerned for safety and protecting personal property. When a storm hits an area, it takes time for the community to recover. An unexpected causality from these massive storms is vehicles that were underwater. Once the water recedes, insurance companies handle the claims from flooded cars and usually send them to a recycler. Some states do not allow a flooded car back on the road but others will issue a salvage or flood title. These cars can make their way back on the road and in car lots states away from their original home. Many unexpected car buyers purchase a vehicle that was damaged by water and have no idea the headaches and loss of money they may incur. Flooded cars can be very problematic and lead to many costly issues down the road. Worst yet they can be unhealthy to occupy because of mold and mildew growing in the carpet and ventilation system. If someone takes their time to hide the damage it can be very hard to identify a flooded car. There is no 100% fool proof way to identify a car that was flooded but here are a few tips that can help save you from a major mistake.
- Sniff Test – The sniff test is one of the easiest and most revealing tests. Close all the windows and door and let the car sit. Wait 5 minutes then crack open a door and sniff. Smell anything? Mildew and mold have very distinctive smells and it doesn’t take long for that smell to present itself. Also be aware of a car that smells too good or is overpowering by smelly fragrances. It’s not normal to find 5 fragrances trees hanging in a car. There is a good chance they are hiding something.
- Touch Test – Get a couple of paper towels and press them against the low spots in the carpet. The paper towel 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 suspect that could mean water has gotten into the car.
- Investigate – Look under the seats and dash for corrosion and rust. 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. Look closely at the seat tracks and up under the dash. Remnants of mud or silt are a sign the vehicle could have been flooded. Look at the carpet for stains. Spilled coffee doesn’t leave a stain in a straight line. The carpet should look its age or that of the rest of the interior. New carpet is not normal. A 10 year old car should look its age. Too clean or replaced carpet is a sign. The rest of the car should match. Don’t forget to check the carpet in the trunk.
- Inspect the Instrument panel. Turn on the key and observe a bulb test. Make sure every bulb lights up. If a system has an issue, removing the warning bulb can hid 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. Also look at the clear plastic covering the cluster. It is a semi-sealed unit and if moisture was able to get in, it is very hard to get it out. It can even fog over making it hard to see.
- Test the accessories – Turn everything on, A/C, Heat, wipers, defrosters, and horn. Anything that uses electricity. Make sure they work properly. Listen to the warning buzzer and make sure it sounds right. If it’s been wet it may sound funny. Turn on the radio. Crank up the tunes. The speakers are made out of paper and will sound distorted if they were wet. Also test the seat belts. Make sure they operate smoothly. If it feels gritty they may have sand in them.
- Walk Around – Look for water or moisture in the light assemblies. If you see moisture look for a small hole at the base of the light where it was drilled to drain the water. Check the spare tire. Remove it and look for water or rust. Look inside the engine compartment. Look for leaves, mud and debris. Remember leaves can come from anywhere so don’t condemn a car for just that. Look for a water line or mud in a place it doesn’t belong. Check the oil in the engine and transmission. Is it milky? If so, it’s a sign water is in the oil. Look at the air filter. It is usually made of paper. It will be distorted or discolored if it had been wet. Start the engine. Does it sound normal?
- Test Drive – Take the car for a spin. Does it run normal? Does the engine have power and sound proper? Is the transmission shifting properly? Don’t just drive it for a few miles take it on a trip. At least 20 miles. That way it can tell you if something is wrong. Let it talk to you.
- Take it to a professional – Let your regular mechanic take a look at it. They can raise the car and look underneath. They can see if there is any mud, sticks or rocks in the suspension. Look at the oil in the differentials to make sure there is no water in them. It’s a good idea to spend a few dollars to have it looked over for your piece of mind. If someone is really questioning a car, I would remove a door panel and see if water or mud is inside the door. It’s very hard to clean and most people never think about that.
- Choose who you buy it from – Most car dealers that have been in business for a long time will be honest. They will not risk their reputation for a quick buck. They believe in building long term relationships. A business that’s been around for decades will usually do the right thing, that’s why they have lasted so long. Watch the Auctions. That’s where many will end up. Do your part and follow these steps so you don’t waste your money. Ask the seller if it’s been in a flood. Get it in writing. Most won’t sign something in fear of getting caught breaking the law. Check the cars history report. Closely look over the title to make sure it doesn’t say salvage or flood. Also question if the deal seems too good to be true. If they are selling it well under the market value that’s a sign something is wrong.
By following these steps you can help prevent purchasing a vehicle that’s been in a flood. Almost everything on this list can be performed by the buyer. It’s estimated that Hurricane Harvey, that ravaged Houston, flooded a half a million cars. It’s inevitable that some will end up in cars lots and auctions near you. Follows these steps, talk to a professional, check it’s history and if the deal is too good to be true, question it. Remember car ownership is the second largest item we purchase. Don’t just hand over your hard earned money before you do your homework. Doing so will save you a lot in the long run.