How To Avoid Buying A Car With Water Damage

Car Flooded in Hurricane Sandy

As folks clean up and restore or rebuild their lives from Sandy I think this is a very relevant topic. Before I get into talking about cars with water damage, I need some help from you guys. I want to help out the folks in the northeast. How and where are you guys donating? I am several hundred miles away, and I want to be sure that what I donate goes to the victims of Sandy. And thanks to everyone that has helped out those people that truly need it.

I know that you might think donating a little bit doesn’t really help. You can’t donate $500,000 like VW did, or maybe you can’t afford to fly there and put your boots on the ground. Trust me when I say that every bit helps. How do I know? Well I dealt with something similar when I was a kid. The short story is, our house was leveled by a tornado. We had nothing. I mean nothing but the clothes we were all wearing. If it was not for donation from the Salvation Army we would have been in big trouble. Even some old clothes or can goods do more for a family in need than you can imagine.

Well, that took a weird turn. Let’s get into today’s topic. How do you avoid buying a car with water damage? I can’t guarantee that after reading this post you will be an expert in spotting water damage. I can tell you that you will be much better at it. You will be able to spot 90% of cars that have had water damage. If you want to read more just click VW Water Damage. That will give you a few posts about the effects of water in a car.

Get a vehicle report
You need to do this before you buy ANY car. A vehicle report is a great way to how the basic history of a car. Things like

  • How many owners
  • Where the car was registered
  • If the title has been branded. This means the car was totaled, or the odometer has been tampered. (more about this in a minute)
  • Some reports show maintenance records.
  • Accident damage over 25%

Reports like Carfax can show more information than what I listed above. As much information that you can get from these reports, I find they are not always 100% accurate. I have seen clean reports on cars that have a ton of damage that was repairs. They also don’t show the quality of a repair.

The information that will be accurate is the title information. The who, what, and where of a vehicles title is almost always perfect. The report will also show a title issue or “brand”. That means the car has had a significant issue and it is forever attached to the car. Things like odometer rollback, a total vehicle loss, or flood damage are the most common ones. Granted, the TMU(true mile unknown) can be a clerical error, I would still be cautious of any branded title.

Car Flooded in Hurricane Sandy

There is no repairing a car after this amount of water damage

Visual inspection
This can be a tough thing to find when dealing with water damage. If someone is trying to pull a fast one, most plain sight damage can be cleaned or hidden. Carpets can be cleaned. Door panels can be shined up to not show the water line. But here are a few tricks to find the hidden damage.

  • Look under the seats.
    Most people will not clean really well under the seat. Staining of the carpet can be seen clearly under the seats.
  • Look at the seats
    Most detail companies miss the part of the seat between the seat and the center console. Move the seat back and for to try and see the entire seat.
  • Check the seat tracks.
    Severe rust build up on the metal seat track may indicate water damage. I have seen slight oxidation on a seat track, but if you are not sure, error on the side of caution.
  • Look at the fuse panel
    Water leaking into a car seems to always find its way into the fuse panel. Look for any signs of the plastic turning white, or connections turning green. Also be sure to look here for any rust on metal parts.
  • Look for discoloration.
    Harsh chemicals may discolor carpet or seat fabric. Make sure the color matches. If you see big spots that look “bleached” it may not be water damage, but it may be a car to avoid anyway!

Like I said, SEEING a water damage from a car that has been cleaned really well can be tough. Look in the crack where you normally don’t look at a car.

Get touchy feely
Touch all the lower trim and carpet of the car. Many times water will cause a change in texture of trim or fabric. I have found that long term water exposure makes trim feel sticky. Not like it is covered in candy goo, but a slight stickiness.

Leather(or leatherette) gets a a little saggy when exposed to water.Generally it gets discolored too. Fabric in the carpet or seats gets a strange feel too. Try and compare carpet or seats to another car, and see if you feel a difference.

Also give the carpet a good push with your hand. Try to compress it as much as possible. Generally when people do not completely dry carpet, water will sit in the padding. When you push it down, the water may come to the surface. If you push on carpet and your hand gets wet, you know it has had water in it.

Use your nose
This is the slam dunk way to tell if a car has been Car Flooded in Hurricane Sandyflooded, THE SMELL! I can generally open the car door and immediately tell if a car has had a water leak. The smell is unmistakeable. I think old mildew is the closest I can get to describe it. Even though I have stupid allergies, I have a pretty tuned nose for water leaks. I recommend you not rely on the overall smell of the car.

Put your nose close to several lower surfaces of the interior. Under the seat, the carpet,and under the dash. There is sound dampeners behind that dash that will hold water. I don’t think anyone would take the dash out, just to dry them There are ways that people try and hide water leaks with fog machines, or “enviortreatments” they generally mask the smell. I have yet to see any of the treatments work great. They either poorly mask the funk, or make it smell like harsh cleaners. The harsh cleaner smell does wear off pretty fast. Then the funk comes back.

I hope that no one ever has to use any of these methods when buying a car. I just can’t get the imagine the number of cars that should be recycled that will be resold. The sad part is many folks will think they are getting a great deal. You all know that old saying,

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Well I could not agree more.

If you have any other advice for people please share it below. The more information we all have, the less likely we will make a very costly mistake. Also, please consider sharing this post with people you know. At some point we will all be in the market for a different car.

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10 replies
  1. Uwe
    Uwe says:

    Yep, we’ve had a number of customers wanting our help fixing flood-damaged cars that they got a “Great Deal” on. I don’t remember a single one that really was a deal. Mostly, such cars turn into a nightmare.


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