How to spot a water-damaged used car

Consumers should beware of flooded used vehicles they may encounter in the resale market

By Jim Gorzelany CTW Features

Nearly a quarter of the U.S. felt the wrath of Superstorm Sandy this October, and thousands of residents found their cars submerged in a torrent of sea- and rainwater. As reported in the industry publication Automotive News, Toyota, Chrysler, Nissan and Honda are scrapping about 15,000 storm-damaged new cars and trucks. As many as 200,000 vehicles from privately owned used-car lots must be replaced.

What’s more, cars that may have been initially drivable are sure to exhibit mechanical problems or other difficulties as time passes, since salt water can be particularly damaging to a vehicle’s components. The transmission and fuel, brake, power-steering and electrical systems are especially vulnerable to increased wear and premature failure.

“In addition to the obvious damage done to upholstery and carpeting, flood water is a corrosive and abrasive mixture of water and dirt that works its way into every seam and crevice of a vehicle,” says John Nielsen with AAA in Orlando.

Experts caution consumers to be on the alert for waterdamaged cars for sale by private owners or on used-car lots that have been cleaned up, but should otherwise have been relegated to the scrap heap.

“Fraud is an unfortunate reality in post-disaster environments,” says Joe Wehrle, president and CEO of the National Insurance Crime Bureau in Des Plaines, Ill. “Unscrupulous salvage operators and dealers often try to conceal from potential buyers the fact that vehicles have been damaged by a natural disaster.”

While it may ultimately take a full inspection by a qualified mechanic to determine if a vehicle has hidden water damage, the National Automobile Dealers Association in Washington, D.C., advises a used-car shopper to follow these timely tips to help spot a vehicle that may have been caught in a flood:

 Check the vehicle’s title history by running its VIN (vehicle identification number) through Carfax (, Experian’s Auto Check ( or the NICB’s VinCheck ( to see if it’s been reported as being flooded or salvaged. Numerous sources report flood and damage information to Carfax and similar services, including insurance companies and state Departments of Motor Vehicles.

 Closely examine the vehicle’s interior and engine compartment for evidence of water and grit, and look for water or condensation in the headlamps and taillights.

 Look for carpeting or upholstery that may have been shampooed after flooding, and keep an eye out for water damage on the lower door panels.

 Pull up the carpeting in the passenger compartment and trunk to check for water residue or stain marks, signs of rust and evidence of mold or a musty odor.

 Get a flashlight and look under the dashboard for evidence of dried mud and other deposits.

 Check for rust on screws in the center console or other areas that might have been submerged.

 Open the hood and look for mud or residue in crevices, behind wiring harnesses and around small recesses in and around components.

 Check electrical wiring and relays in the engine compartment and under the dashboard for rusted components, corrosion or water residue.

 Look under the car, in wheel-wells and around door, hood and trunk panels for evidence of rust not otherwise associated with later-model cars.

“When in doubt, have the vehicle checked out,” NADA chairman Bill Underriner says. “Your safety and your family’s safety are far too important to risk.”

© CTW Features