What are the symptoms of a flood damaged car?

A flood damaged car will often show many signs of water damage, including:

  • Unusual odors: The interior of a flooded car will often smell musty or moldy due to prolonged exposure to water. The owner may not be able to completely clean every area of the vehicle that has been flooded (behind door panels, for example), leaving a musty smell. Be suspicious of cars that smell strongly of cleaning solutions or air fresheners as the seller may be trying to mask a mildew smell. Always run the air conditioner system to see if it produces a moldy smell.
  • Discolored interior: Large stains on the carpet or upholstery of the vehicle could indicate standing water. In most cases, brand new upholstery in a used car is also a warning sign as the seller may be trying to hide flood damage. Pull the seatbelt out completely to look for signs of moisture or mildew.
  • Sand or dirt in unusual areas: Floodwater also brings sand and dirt into the vehicle that can be hard to clean out. Look for sand or mud under the carpeting, in the glove compartment, and under the seats. Check the engine bay to look for sand or mud around the engine.
  • Rust: Look for rust on the underside of the car. A flooded vehicle will often have more rust than you'd expect for the car's age, as well as rust in odd places. Check for rusty screws in the console area and around doors, under the dashboard, and even inside the hood.
  • Moisture: Moisture beads or fogging in the interior or exterior lights are a warning sign of possible flood damage.

Once you've inspected the car for signs of flood damage, it's time to look for these warning signs during the test drive:

  • Smoke: Smoke should be a concern with any used vehicle purchase, but engine smoke is an even more serious warning sign if you suspect the car has been flooded.
  • Electronics: Water can do severe damage to electronics, so be sure to check everything in the vehicle. The lights, audio system, windshield wipers, and turn signals should all be tested. If they don't work or behave oddly, the car may have water damage.
  • Noises: Odd noises from the brakes or steering wheel may indicate that sand or dirt has gotten into these systems. Noises coming from a variety of areas may indicate flood damage.

How can I check a car for a history of flood damage?

When shopping for a used car, it may be a good idea to pull a vehicle history report. You can use the National Insurance Crime Bureau VINCheck for free, or purchase a report. These reports should indicate if a car has been reported as flood damaged. If the previous owner didn't report the damage or file an insurance claim, however, the flood damage may not show up on a vehicle history report.

In addition to a vehicle history report, a mechanic can perform an inspection of the car to search for flood damage.

Is a flood damaged car repairable?

It depends on the severity of the flooding. Minor flooding that's quickly drained can often be repaired, but vehicles that are severely flooded or sit in water for days are often considered unrepairable by insurance companies, which leads to the car being declared a total loss.

Flooded cars are often declared a total loss because repairing water damage is complicated and costly. A total loss means the insurance company has determined that the damage cannot be repaired safely, or the cost to repair the vehicle is more than the value of the car.

Flooded cars are often declared a total loss because repairing water damage is complicated and costly.

Once the vehicle is declared a total loss, the owner is paid the vehicle's value at the time of the loss, minus any deductible. The vehicle is then issued a salvage title to warn potential buyers that it's been declared a total loss. Insurers often sell salvage title vehicles to salvage yards or rebuilders.

Can you insure a flood damaged car?

It depends on whether the vehicle was issued a salvage title or if the damage was fully repaired. Here are a couple of scenarios:

  • Flood-damaged fixed: If the owner of the flooded vehicle filed an insurance claim and the damage was repaired properly, you should be able to insure a previously flooded car or truck just as you would any other vehicle.
  • Salvage title: If you're buying a vehicle with a salvage title, it may be difficult to insure. Some insurers may be unwilling to write collision or comprehensive coverage on a salvage title car. It's tough to put a value on these vehicles because they have severe structural damage that can make them dangerous out on the road.

You may only be able to carry liability on a salvage title car if insurers are unwilling to provide collision or comprehensive coverage for the vehicle. If that's the case, you must cover the cost of any future repairs out of pocket.