Flood damaged cars: 9 ways to tell a motor that’s had a soaking

flood damaged cars
Once it’s been dried out, would you know this car has been partially submerged? (Picture iStock/ProjectB)

Rain and flooding might be in the news at the moment. But anyone buying a used motor over the next few months has got the prospect of purchasing flood damaged cars to be wary of.

Having a good soaking in a flood can cause a car to have numerous problems, not all of them immediately evident. Here are nine ways you can tell if the car you’re thinking of buying is flood damaged.

Look at the windows

If a car’s windows are open when you first see it, the seller may be trying to dry it out or stop a musty smell building up. If the windows are shut and there’s condensation on the inside, it might be because the carpets or seats are damp. This makes the air inside moist which turns into condensation on the cold glass.

Where is the car being sold?

It’s worth checking where in the country the car is and finding out whether that area flooded. If the answer’s yes, what sort of flooding was it? Although no flood is a good flood, salty sea water is much more corrosive than the fresh water from a river. That said, ‘fresh’ water is more likely to be carrying debris from overwhelmed sewage systems.

flood damaged cars
They’re not completely submerged but the carpets will probably be a bit soggy (Picture iStock/MikeGr)

Use your nose

When you open the car’s door for the first time, check for strange smells. Flood damaged cars probably have a musty damp smell. The seller might be trying to disguise this with air fresheners. If so, give the seats a good sniff. In extreme cases, the car might have had sewage in it. Your nose will tell you if it has.

Take a torch

People can do a good job of drying a car out but there are some parts they won’t be able to reach unless they strip it out completely. With a torch you’ll be able to have a really good poke about. Under the seats is a good place to start. Depending on their colour, you might be able to see a tide mark on the carpet. Or the metal framework of the seat might have started to rust. There may even still be silt in the seat’s runners.

Look under the carpets too. Beneath these in most cars there’s sound deadening material. This is difficult to dry out because it’s so thick and dense so use your torch and touch to find out if it’s wet.

Look under the bonnet

There are a surprising number of ledges and other flat surfaces beneath a car’s bonnet. With your torch, have a look at these, particularly the ones in lower, hard-to-reach places and see if they’ve got silty deposits on them.

Then take off the oil filler cap. If the engine has swallowed water, there could be a white substance a bit like mayonnaise around the inside of the filler cap. This happens when water and oil mix in a hot engine.

Check the lights

Have a look at each of the light units. These are usually sealed but not enough to prevent moisture finding a way in if submerged. If the car was flooded, at least some of the light units will have condensation inside. Water may still be trapped in them.

Try the electrics

Before you take the car on a test drive, try all the electrical features. Whether it’s the lights, electric windows or air conditioning, damp could seriously effect it. And if you turn the air con on and the car steams up, that’s a sign of moisture in the system.

Why is it being sold?

A flood-damaged car could be for sale for several reasons. The owner might know it’s been flooded but not want to risk their no claims discount by telling the insurer. They may only have third party insurance, which doesn’t cover flooding. Or they might have bought the car for a bargain knowing it was flood damaged and omitting that vital piece of information while they sell it on for a quick buck.

Is it an insurance write-off?

Last but not least, have a Green Flag vehicle check check done on the car to see if an insurer has written it off. It’s not illegal to professionally repair and sell Category S and N (previously C and D) insurance write-off cars. But those that have been declared a Category A and B write-off are only good for the scrap heap or spares; they should never be returned to the roads.

If a Category S or N car is repaired and put back on the road, it must have its status as an insurance write-off declared. And the seller should reduce the price accordingly. Buying a car that someone’s written off because it’s been in a flood might be a real bargain. Or someone might have shoddily repaired it so it proves to be a complete liability. That’s why it’s well worth checking if it’s had a good soaking or not.

Thinking of buying a used car? Get an instant vehicle history check from us here.

THIS IS AN UPDATE OF A POST ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 3 MARCH 2020

3 comments on “Flood damaged cars: 9 ways to tell a motor that’s had a soaking

  1. Antonio Mamgrsfreaks 12/03/2020 6:13 PM

    I had an experience like this a few years ago with a flooded car. These ones are hard to find especially if there is no write off or category for the car previous history. Definitely follow the tips in this article. Will help you massively. Antonio

  2. colincd1 28/01/2021 8:52 PM

    My car was written off after being flooded. A 2020 Ford Edge that I had only had for 4 months. the water got up to just under the dashboard and soaked all of the onboard computers and electrics.
    The engine had water in along with the fuel tank, the insurance Co did write the car off but they classed it as a repairable ?
    Everything is controlled by the computers from brakes to acceleration, the car would be a death trap if it was put back on the road.
    I really don’t understand insurance companies at all.

    • David L Foulger 27/03/2021 3:51 AM

      It was written off because it was not economic to repair. As the basic structure was undamaged it could be safely put back on the road once the damaged parts were replaced from maybe a crash damaged donor car where the interior and electronics were still viable. That has to be better than a crashed vehicle that has been pulled back to shape. Far from being a “death trap”.

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