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How to check if a car has flood damage — before you buy

Flood damage is one of the worst things that can happen to a car. Flood damage leads to any number of issues that are hard, or even impossible, to get rid of and can be a financial headache for the owner. For these reasons, you want to know how to check for car flood damage before you buy a used car.

Signs of car flood damage

It can be hard to spot a car with flood damage. Flood damaged cars don’t always have obvious signs of damage. In addition, unscrupulous sellers do something called “title washing.” Title washing is when a seller attempts to erase vehicle history, making it easier to sell the damaged car at a higher price with no record of it ever experiencing a flood.

But don’t worry. Even if a seller tried to cover up a car’s flood damage, there are ways to detect it. Here are some of the big ones to look (and smell) for:

  • Unusual odors: There are two tests you can do to identify a musty scent arising from mildew. First, when you turn the car off and close all the doors and windows for several minutes, see if you notice an unusual smell. Second, when you turn on the AC, you’ll notice the same type of musty odor.
  • Rust on metal areas underneath and inside the car: When metal is exposed to a lot of moisture, it begins to rust. You can check for this in the seat frame, car floor bolts, and seat tracks.
  • Stained or discolored carpeting: If you notice the carpeting has splotches, two different tones or faint watermark lines, this could indicate water has penetrated the interior.
  • Consolidated dirt and sand: Organic debris gathered around interior and exterior surfaces on a car means water likely evaporated from that surface.

In addition to the above points.

  • Seek out a trusted dealer by looking at reports from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or Kelley Blue Book.
  • Check the vehicle history using a resource that supplies vehicle history reports, which will indicate if a flood insurance claim was placed on the car.
  • Check in the trunk and under hood for additional scents, discoloration, rust and debris.
  • Take the car on a test drive and take note of the electric components, like the radio and speakers. If they’re not working properly, this may point to flood damage that impacted the electrical wiring.

What if a dealer sells you a damaged car?

OK, say you’ve done all your due diligence and a dealer still sells you a damaged car. What can you do? First, get a mechanic’s feedback on the extent and type of damage. If they confirm that it’s flood damage, your next step is to set a meeting with your dealership.  If flood damage is confirmed, you may be entitled to your money back. There are local state departments meant to prevent the workings of fraudulent businesses that may be able to assist you.

Not so wet behind the ears

Clearly, you want to think twice before buying a used car with flood damage, and now you know some of the most tell-tale signs. Unfortunately, though, there are dealers out there who may sell you a flood-damaged car, knowingly or not. So, in case you do wind up with a bad purchase, there are certain steps you can take so you won’t be left completely high and dry.

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