How to Look for Signs of Flood Damage in Used Cars

Make sure to do a thorough inspection for signs of flood damage before buying a pre-owned car.

A lineup of cars at a dealership
Dishonest used-car sellers may utilize title washing to hide flood damage history from buyers.
alexfan32 / Shutterstock

Every year, hundreds of thousands of cars are destroyed by floods, especially in areas prone to hurricanes. Even partially submerged vehicles can be unsafe to drive and costly—if not impossible—to repair.

Flood-damaged vehicles are typically given a salvage or flood title (depending on the state) and recycled for parts or crushed for scrap, but some end up on the used car market—and could end up in your driveway.

A little research can help you avoid a flood-damaged used car. Dishonest sellers use a practice known as title washing, in which a car receives a new title that essentially erases its damage history. Unscrupulous sellers can make a flood damaged car look nice, but hidden problems can catch up with you.

Using a reputable dealer who may provide a used car warranty is a good place to start, but if you’re buying through other channels, here are some things to look for:

  • Smell for mold or mildew.
  • Check upholstery and door panels for water stains, mud, or new or mismatched fabric/carpeting.
  • Search the seatbelts, trunk, and under the carpets for water spots, dirt, sand, and mildew.
  • Look for rust inside the hood and around doors, hinges, and screws.
  • Check for fog or moisture inside headlights, taillights, and turn-signal lights.
  • Turn everything on and off. That means all electrical components, including window and seat controllers, turn signals, radio, and A/C.
  • Purchase a CARFAX report for even more detailed information about the car, including major accidents, number of previous owners, mileage rollbacks, and manufacturer recalls.
  • Get a free report on the vehicle. Visit the National Insurance Crime Bureau website for a free VINCheck. Enter the Vehicle Identification Number to find out whether the car you’re interested in buying was ever reported as a salvage or flood vehicle by insurance companies that belong to the NICB. Be aware that VIN fraud, where VIN numbers are switched or altered, can occur.
  • Have a AAA Approved auto repair shop do a thorough inspection.

For more information, talk to a AAA Auto Insurance agent.