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How to Spot Flood Damage when Purchasing a Vehicle

So, you’ve found a car you’re interested in buying. You’ve gone over the basic questions you need to ask the vendor, and you’re pretty sure that you’re going to be able to spot any obvious signs of wear and tear. But there’s an enemy you might not have considered: Flood damage - a dangerous consequence of harsh weather that could have costly, or even terminal, implications moving forward, and you’d be amazed how often it is never picked up.

Flood damage can really occur at any time of the year, especially amid the southern states more humid and damp climate, but during winter’s grip, excessive rainfall makes the issue much more widespread. Burst river banks or flash flooding can effectively write off hundreds of vehicles in one foul swoop.

Individuals looking to purchase vehicles at second-hand car yards are most at risk of being duped by dishonest salesmen. But plenty of used vehicles are pawned off to unsuspecting customers in private sales too. You see, unfortunately for those affected by flooding, car insurers typically write off 70 percent of flood-damaged cars, tempting many owners to avoid making claims and selling privately instead.

Flood-damaged vehicles can be repaired, and if they have been restored, they will carry a seal of approval that must be declared by car yards or private sellers. But if you end up with a vehicle that does have unreported flood damage, chances are, it’s not going to be an easy fix and may require a full restoration. Depending on the severity of flood damage, the associated costs are sometimes enormous and often unending, especially among modern vehicles with complicated electronics.

Particularly if you live in an area impacted by significant rainfall, or indeed if you purchasing a vehicle during the winter months, you need to school yourself on how to effectively inspect a vehicle for flood damage. So, in light of that, we’ve compiled some precautionary checks that you can conduct in order to better protect yourself and ensure you aren’t caught out:

Trust Your Senses

When inspecting a vehicle, it is important to pay attention to your senses. You’ll want to stand back and get an overall impression of the vehicle, and when you do, be sure to take note if its windows have been left open. Ask yourself why that might be - is it an innocent nuance for the purposes of display, or is the owner trying to ventilate the vehicle?

Moving closer to inspect the vehicle's interior, does the upholstery smell damp or musty? Be certain to question the owner about it and gauge their reaction. Don’t be fooled by perfumes such as air fresheners or excessive interior polish - get in there and use your hands to feel for wetness.

Feeling Rusty

The same rules of sight, touch, and smell apply throughout the rest of the vehicle’s exterior, engine bay, and trunk. In the case of rust, make sure you’re able to determine signs of corrosion before viewing.

In flood-damaged vehicles, always inspect the spare wheel well for any signs of dampness or corrosion. Get underneath the wheel arches and check the condition of the brake and suspension components too. Remember to keep in mind the vehicle's age and mileage and question whether there looks to be more or less the appropriate amount of wear and tear versus that information. Any sand, salt, or mud is usually a bad sign and warrants questioning the vendor.

Another trick is to unscrew the oil filler and look at the underside of its cap - if you can see a white, non-soluble substance, that could be a sign of water inside the engine oil or a damaged head gasket.

Get Technical

Once you’ve ticked off the above steps, it’s time to turn on the ignition and eliminate any possible electrical malfunctions that might have resulted from flood damage. Firstly, put the key in the ignition and check that all the warning lights are working. Remember to actually start the engine and take note that all of the warning lights have gone out. Across most states in the US, dashboard lights have all the lights gone out? In states requiring vehicle inspection tests during ownership transfer, vehicles with flashing dash lights may not pass.

It is also worth testing that all electrical features of the car are in order, such as the stereo, windows and mirrors, are working. Again, question anything that seems out of the ordinary, especially if you’ve noticed corrosion or dampness in combination with this occurrence.

Other tricks that can be attempted from inside the vehicle during a test drive is to put the heater on full blast - if the windows steam up, there could well be a source of moisture inside the vehicle.

Do Your Homework

Don’t skimp on checking over paperwork, and be suspicious of vehicles that come with little or missing information - records of maintenance should be kept by all individuals, so question if documentation is scarce.

Remember, you should be able to request basic vehicle history information from the vehicle transportation association in your state. For example, in Maryland, The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration can provide you with the basic title information showing the history of the vehicle while it has been registered in Maryland. But keep in mind that if the vehicle has been salvaged and re-titled in another state it may not appear on the Maryland MVA vehicle history.

The hard and fast rule is to not let emotion sway your decision making when purchasing a vehicle. If you’ve performed the above checks and you’re still feeling dicey, the chances are that it probably isn’t a good call. Trust your gut and don’t be afraid to walk away or defer your decision. There will always be another vehicle and it isn’t worth taking an unnecessary risk.

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