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6 Easy Ways to Spot a Flood-Damaged Car

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Learn some easy ways to spot a flood-damaged car before driving it off the lot

Learn some easy ways to spot a flood-damaged car before driving it off the lot

Recent flooding in Texas and elsewhere in the United States has left thousands of vehicles water-damaged. That doesn’t mean those vehicles end up at the junkyard, however. Unfortunately, a number of unscrupulous vehicle owners will do everything they can to make some cash off their misfortune by passing off their flood-damaged cars as “totally fine,” sometimes in states far away from where the flooding occurred. This is more likely to happen when you purchase privately, rather than at the dealership, though there have been cases where even car dealerships (typically unknowingly but in a few cases knowingly) have had flood-damaged cars on their lots.

So how can you tell that the car you’re interested in isn’t one of the many vehicles damaged by recent flooding, or even flooding from several years ago? There’s a lot you can check for yourself, though we also strongly encourage obtaining a vehicle history report (or, if you’re at a dealership, having them order one) and taking the vehicle to an independent mechanic to check out the car. Don’t go off the vehicle history report alone, however, as there are cases in which individuals have illegally altered documents to pass off a totaled or salvaged car. And while you can usually trust what an independent mechanic has to say about a potential purchase, you’ll want to do some investigating on your own.

ways to spot flood-damaged cars

To help you out, we’ve got six easy ways to spot a flood-damaged car. If you notice even just one of these signs, you’re better off passing, just in case.

foggy headlights - Ways to Spot a Flood-Damaged Car

If a car has foggy headlights, it may have been water damage

Check the Lights

If a car has been partially or fully submerged underwater, chances are good it will show in any and all lamps. Check out headlights and taillights for fogginess. You’ll also want to check the interior lights as well: overhead lights, mirrors lights, even lights on the dashboard. The fogginess is a sign that there is water that has not yet evaporated, and this is typically a place that crooks trying to pass off a damaged car as undamaged cannot for the life of them get to, making it one of the strongest tools for identifying flood damage.

dashboard lights on instrument cluster - ways to spot a flood-damaged car

Do the lights on your instrument cluster work?

Test Out Regular Vehicle Functions

By now, you should have already checked out the dashboard lights to see if they are operable. While you’ve got the car on and idling, take this opportunity to test out other features of the vehicle, like the air conditioning, the heater, turn signals, radio, and windshield wiper. If there are any issues with any of these components, you’ll want to do some more digging into what could be causing the problem—flood-damage or otherwise.


mud - Ways to Spot a Flood-Damaged Car

What mud? I don’t see any mud.Photo: Joost J. Bakker

Inspect the Car for Mud, Dirt, and Silt

If the car is ostensibly damp, even on the inside, then without a doubt you are looking at a flood-damaged vehicle. There are other, more subtle visual clues that you can pick up on as well, however. If there is a significant amount of mud, dirt, or silt on the floors, on the seats, in the glove compartment, on the seat tracks, or in the trunk, it’s quite possible that the car was exposed to water. However, a surefire way to figure this out is to look where the spare tire sits in the trunk. You’ll have to lift up the floor of the trunk usually to access this location, but this is often a place that scammers forget to check and clean after salvaging their car. If there is any mud, dirt, moisture, rust, or anything else suspicious, then passing on that car is the only safe option.


mold in car - Ways to Spot a Flood-Damaged Car

Is that mold you smell? Then get the heck away.
Photo: Toshiyuki IMAI

Give It the Old Sniff Test

Don’t be embarrassed if you have to take a few strong whiffs inside the car. If you detect a musty odor, especially in the carpets or seat fabrics, the vehicle was likely a victim of water damage. This is a very good way to catch sketchy car sellers in the act, as they cannot usually get rid of that smell, no matter how hard they try.


rusty car - Ways to Spot a Flood-Damaged Car

Rust? Nah. Just needs a fresh bit of paint.

Keep an Eye Out for Rust

Check for rust everywhere. Get on your back and slide under the car to inspect the undercarriage. Look in the trunk, at the seat tracks, and under the hood. While most old cars will have some rust damage, excessive rust is usually a warning sign for a car that has been severely damaged by flooding.


mismatching seats - Ways to Spot a Flood-Damaged Car

Are we sure those seats match?

Look for Things That Don’t Match

Water damage could lead to stains on the seats or on the carpet, so you’ll definitely want to be looking for that. But what if the current owner just replaced the stained materials? Chances are good that he or she could not find an identical  carpet or seat fabric replacement. If you notice that part of the floor or upholstery looks updated but not all of it, then something shady has definitely happened.