4 Ways to Avoid Buying a Used Car with Water Damage

3 min to read

If you need a new car, but don’t want to spend the money for a brand new vehicle, a used car is generally a great option. Buyers should always be careful when buying used cars—checking CARFAX for the vehicle’s history, total mileage, whether it was in any accidents, etc. 

One thing buyers don’t always think about when looking for a used car is whether the vehicle has incurred any water damage. Considering the current used vehicle inventory shortage, you may need to be extra careful when shopping as more flood-damaged vehicles will be entering the marketplace and sellers may not be forthcoming with this information.

Recent hurricanes

In September and October 2022, Hurricane Ian caused widespread damage across the southeast United States and western Cuba, most notably in Florida and South Carolina. The hurricane reached Category 4 status, leaving an estimated 358,000 flood-damaged vehicles in its wake. While many of these vehicles will be considered totaled and sent to the scrap yard, others will end up in used car lots or for sale online. CNBC reports an approximate 400,000 cars on the road today have flood damage from previous storms. 

Purchasing a water-damaged car is something you want to avoid as it can continually take money out of your pocket. What’s worse is that sometimes you won’t be able to tell if a car has water damage just by looking at it. The following tips will help you avoid buying a water-damaged used car.

Identifying water damage in cars

1. Check the title

When hurricanes and strong storms hit, thousands of cars feel the blow. If the cars were insured, the insurance companies handle the water-damaged vehicles by hiring businesses that auction the vehicles off to dealers around the country. When a company or dealer is trying to resell a vehicle, the title must indicate whether it is a salvaged vehicle, indicating it was involved in a major accident or natural disaster. 

Additionally, it’s critical to be aware that people may experience water damage but never report the damage to insurance, instead “fixing” it themselves and selling the car privately. If you are involved in a private sale, you are putting yourself at risk for purchasing a car with unreported water damage.

2. Look for gaps in vehicle history reports

Checking the car title for “salvage” should be a fool-proof way to avoid buying a used car with water damage, but sometimes it’s not enough. To go the extra mile, look at vehicle history reports such as CARFAX or AutoCheck. If the car was in an accident it should be on the report, but water damage may not always be indicated. However, if the report has any gaps you will want to check them out and dig a little deeper. Ask questions and try to get answers on what happened during the gap. Also, if you see the car was recently purchased from an auto auction in Louisiana or New York, or other places where recent flooding may have occurred, you may want to reconsider your interest in the car.

When looking at reports, you also want to be wary of a vehicle that has multiple registrations in different states. Some states do not require certain information to be recorded, so sellers may just be finding loopholes to hide the ugly parts of the vehicle’s history.

3. Look for signs of water damage

Though this tip may seem completely obvious, signs of water damage are often hard to see. Individuals and companies can make cosmetic changes to a vehicle to hide the fact that it was damaged. The following will help you spot clues there may be existing water damage: 

  • Check below the seats, trunk, glove compartment and dashboard for rust, mud or dirt
  • Make sure the color of the interior upholstery is the same throughout. If not, it can indicate replacements. If parts are stained or dirty, it can indicate water damage
  • Make sure all electrical parts of the car work properly. Test the radio, windshield wipers, heating, air conditioning and turn signals
  • Examine headlights and tail lights for water or condensation 
  • Check for smells of dampness or mildew
  • Have a mechanic check the vehicle for an inspection before purchasing

4. Take extra precautions

Even after taking the three steps above, there are still plenty of water-damaged vehicles that slip through the cracks. If you end up with a water-damaged vehicle, there is a huge unknown in terms of how well it will operate over time. When purchasing a used vehicle, you can protect yourself as a consumer with an extended warranty, then take it to a mechanic for a more thorough inspection. If you live in states that have a higher risk of flooding—Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, South Carolina, etc.—it’s especially important to take these measures when purchasing a used car. 

If your car has suffered water damage or was flooded in recent storms, there are steps you can take to prevent further damage. Learn what to do if your car is flooded

Buying a car is exciting and a large investment. Before you put any money down on a used vehicle, make sure you do your homework and check everything you can to ensure your car doesn’t have water damage.