The waters here in Phoenix have barely receded after our record rainfall, which means it’s a great time to warn people about flood damaged cars.
In today’s technology-laden cars, flooding is a bigger concern than ever. While water can cause plenty of mechanical issues, it is truly a cancer in a car’s electrical system. Worse yet, the car may work today, but inside that expensive wiring harness the corrosion could be slowly eating away the wires. It may take months or even years for it to reach the point where it fails, but it will.
After a flood you need to be especially vigilant about looking over a car carefully before you buy. Here are some tips to help guide the way.
1. Don’t believe the title – Cars that have been damaged by flood waters to the point that the insurance company had to write them off are easy to spot. They have a branded title. Some states will state “flood” on the title, but others (like Arizona) will simply call it salvage or salvage restored. The good news is that branding is a clear warning that the car has issues. The bigger problem is when a car was damaged by a flood, but the owner didn’t file a claim. Sometimes it’s because they didn’t have enough insurance, or maybe the deductible was too high. Either way, the title appears clean. Unfortunately, the car isn’t.
2. Sniff Test – Cars are amazingly water tight. With regular use they aren’t supposed to smell moldy. There are plenty of reasons for a car to have a bad smell besides a flood, but the reality is that any mold problem is a sign of trouble. Of course, in states like Arizona, it’s possible to dry the car out quickly and avoid that smell. That’s why it’s a good idea to sniff around the trunk as well.
3. Look for mud in places it doesn’t belong – Underneath the dashboard is a perfect example. It’s hard to explain why you would have dirt caked above your knee level.
4. Look in the taillights – This is another place that should be nice and clean. If it has a coating of fine silt or looks foggy, it’s possible that they were below the waterline at some point.
5. Check out the carpeting – There are plenty of good reasons to replace the carpeting in a car before you sell it. The front carpeting especially gets a lot of wear. But it’s also something that might be replaced after a flood. If you can, pull it up slightly to see if there is any mud below. Watch for new carpeting in the back seat. Usually that doesn’t wear out as fast so replacing it might be a sign of trouble.
6. Make sure everything works – When you take your test drive, make sure you check out just about every electrical switch. The radio is a good start, but what about the windows, the seats or the rear power outlet? Not working isn’t necessarily a sign of flooding, after all plenty of things fail with age. But if one thing doesn’t work, it might be your first clue that you need a closer inspection.
7. Look beneath the spare tire – I already mentioned sniffing in the trunk. Don’t be afraid to check the spare tire well. It’s another place that could hold clues to a watery past.
8. Pay close attention to the transmission – Does it shift smoothly? A small amount of water can cause all kinds of havoc in a transmission. Even a sealed transmission has points that allow for water to get in. If you can check the fluid, you might spot water. Clean fluid, however, isn’t a guarantee. Be especially careful of the transmission if you’re buying a car immediately after the flood. Those problems can strike quickly and the expensive price tag is a reason some folks opt to dump the car.
9. Get a Carfax report – There are some car sellers who are, shall we say, less than honest. In the past they have actually figured out ways to retitle cars in different states in such a way that they can lose the “flood” title. Sometimes they’ve even managed to drop “salvage” from the title. It’s a lot harder today, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen in the past or that someone hasn’t figure out a loophole that they’re still squeezing through. If the car was ever given a branded title or insurance payout, the Carfax report will generally show it.
10. Have it checked by a mechanic – The reality is that you should have every car checked by a mechanic before you buy. Flood damage is just another good reason. They can pull the car up on the lift and look at places that you can’t see. They don’t do it for free (if you don’t have a regular mechanic, shop around), but it’s always good to know what mechanical issues you’re facing with any car you buy.
So does this mean you should never buy a flood damaged car? Personally, I would avoid them like the plague. Having said that, if you know what you’re buying, and you’re getting a screaming deal, it might offset the headaches that could be down the road. You simply need to remember that the flood damage could be lying in wait and strike long after the waters have gone.