Know how to spot automobile flood damage

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A flood-damaged car after a 1996 flood in Florence, Italy.

The "before" shot of a flood damaged car. Learn how to spot flood damage so you won't be fooled by an unscrupulous seller. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Buying a flood-damaged automobile is an extreme risk, which makes knowing how to spot flood damage a valuable skill. Considering how many flood-damaged cars have hit the market in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it pays for consumers to know how to protect themselves against polished, shiny vehicles hiding a proverbial ticking time bomb under the hood. Knowing about rebuilt car titles isn’t enough. In some cases, damage can go unreported, and a skilled (and unscrupulous) detailer can fix the interior and exterior of a car to the point where the untrained eye can’t tell the difference. With a little help from the National Automobile Detailers Association (NADA), here are the top 10 signs of automobile flood damage.

Spot automobile flood damage with these tips

  1. Start with the VIN number. If there have been any reports that a vehicle has taken on flood damage, services like CarFax or Experian Auto Check should be able to spot it based on the vehicle’s VIN number. Places to look for the VIN in a car include a small panel on the driver’s side interior dash (cars 1969 or newer), etched into the windshield, on the front of the engine block, stamped on the front end of the frame, in the trunk on a panel under the spare tire, on the bottom of the driver’s side door jamb or even inside the back wheel well.
  2. Check the interior and engine compartment. If there are any obvious signs of water and grit, don’t buy the car.
  3. Has the carpet been shampooed recently?
  4. Check underneath the floorboard carpet. If there is significant water residue or stains, it could be more than just A/C leaks.
  5. Look for rust. Again, check out the interior closely, including underneath interior carpets. Fading in the door panels and upholstery could also be signs of flood damage.
  6. Is there mold, mud or musty mildew under the dash, in the upholstery or in the trunk? These are tell-tale signs of flood damage, or at least a car you don’t want to buy.
  7. Console screws shouldn’t be rusted. Water would not typically be able to reach those areas unless the car was submerged.
  8. Keep searching for mud. Specifically, NADA suggests checking areas around the alternator, behind wires and in the smaller crevices around the starter, power steering pumps and relay systems.
  9. Check the wiring at length. Look for rust, corrosion and even water residue.
  10. Inspect the underbelly. That would include the total undercarriage of the vehicle. You’re looking for out-of-place rust or metal flaking for a car of its given age.

This flood-damaged automobile checklist isn’t perfect

In fact, there is no perfect method for how to spot flood damage. However, it’s a good start. Until NADA is able to convince Congress that legislation is needed that will compel auto insurance companies to electronically disclose the VIN numbers of totaled vehicles (proposed Vehicle Total-Loss Disclosure legislation), consumers must keep their wits about them and check potential auto purchases thoroughly if they live in flood-prone areas of the country.


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  1. David on

    Would flood damage cause the clear cote on alloy wheels to peel.