How To Tell If a Car Has Been Flood Damaged

Chidi Ohiaeri
by Chidi Ohiaeri

Buying a used car comes with its own set of unique challenges. But there is perhaps none no more important than spotting a flood-damaged one before it’s too late.

According to Carfax, a web-based vehicle history report service company, there are approximately 325,510 flood-damaged cars currently being driven on the roads. With the number of strict measures being taken nowadays to avoid registering a flood-damaged car for commercial or private use, how did these cars end up falling through the cracks?

ALSO SEE: How to Avoid Purchasing a Flood-Damaged Vehicle

Despite very useful resources like the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) that can help you spot a vehicle with a flood title, some vehicles affected by flood damage may not have comprehensive insurance at the time of being declared a total loss — this means that they can be repaired and rebranded with clean titles without sparking suspicion.

Making matters worse, some states in the U.S. have very lax regulations regarding dealing with flood-damaged vehicles properly and you end up with some of these vehicles becoming incorrectly branded as roadworthy.

There are currently only 39 states in the U.S. on board with providing data to NMVTIS as well as doing inquiries. Only six states are actually providing data, while the rest are still working out the details and aren’t providing data yet.

Because of this inconsistency in state cooperation, some vehicles with a flood title can be taken to another state where data is not as comprehensively shared with the NMVTIS and that vehicle can easily be repaired illegally there and rebranded with a clean title. Even worse, that same vehicle can then be taken back to its home state with no sign of foul play and then sold to an unsuspecting buyer.

ALSO SEE: Hurricane Harvey May Have Destroyed 500,000 Cars

Luckily, there are some things that you can do to take matters into your own hands.

Here are signs to look out for when checking to see if a car has been flood-damaged:

Look out for Moldy Carpeting

A car submerged in flood waters will end up having water trapped in tight crevices in the interior and also soaked in the carpet. Because flood damage thoroughly douses a car in water, drying occurs very slowly and that kind of drying will result in mold setting in. Take time inspecting the smell and look of the floor mats as well as the carpeting under the seats and in areas where the carpeting is not easily visible, which drives even slower. Take a peek under carpets to see if there’s dirt or sand residue. Look at any cloth surfaces (including interior door panels, upholstery, and seatbelts) and check for unusual stains or watermarks.

Sniff for Unusually Smelly or Scented Interiors

Sometimes a flood-damaged vehicle can escape detection if the deceiver has taken steps to present the vehicle as a non-salvage title. The vehicle may even look pristine and not come off as suspicious, but just take one whiff of the interior and an unmistakable pungent smell will be evident. This smell doesn’t even have to be offensive but it will feel unnatural and smell musty, like something’s not fresh. Your deceiving retailer could also overcompensate for a stinky interior by overdosing on strong perfumes or deodorant, which is also a red flag. One extra tip: bring along a friend or colleague with an impeccable sense of smell.

Pay Attention to Glitchy Electronics

Although water damage to wiring and electric circuits inside a vehicle can take a longer time to manifest, there are some warning signs if the electrical components in the vehicle start to exhibit inconsistent behavior. Check all electrical functions and look out for controls that don’t always work when selected. Bring the car to a mechanic to see if electronic components are showing signs of issues during an inspection because it could be a sign of undetected water damage.

Check for Water Buildup Around the Exterior

Headlamps, taillights, and fog lamps with internal condensation could be signs of water damage, especially if the housings for these lights do not appear cracked or damaged in any way.

Spotting a flood-damaged car before it is too late can be difficult, but enlist the help of mechanics and friends with a sharp sense of smell, and check as far into a car’s history as possible. If you’re buying near an area that has experienced floods in the past, be extra cautious.

Chidi Ohiaeri
Chidi Ohiaeri

Chidi loves talking about cars. He enjoys exploring the limits of new car technology and performance vehicles. When he is not writing features for AutoGuide, you will most likely find him perusing Kijiji or Autotrader listings for unique classic nameplates.

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