Water damage to a vehicle may occur as a result of flooding, intense storms, or continuous exposure to water, salt, humidity, or corrosive chemicals. While there is no foolproof technique to avoid the purchase of an environmentally damaged vehicle, steps can be taken to ensure the vehicle you purchase lives up to your expectations.
GEOGRAPHY MATTERS. A vehicle’s likelihood of rusting is directly related to its geographical location. Salt can be problematic for vehicles no matter where you live, but if you live near the ocean, your vehicle will be more susceptible to rust due to the high salt content of the humid ocean air. In colder climates, many communities and road crews use salt on roads and highways to breakdown ice and snow. As the ice and snowmelt, you’re left with an electrolyte bath capable of turning your vehicle into a rust bucket. Areas such as the upper Midwest and parts of the Northeast have a reputation for rusting vehicles, largely due to both the humidity and heavy use of road salt in such areas.
VEHICLES WERE BUILT TO MOVE. If you live in an area that isn’t known for road salt use and humidity, don’t make the mistake of thinking you are safe from rust. After all, vehicles can easily be transported and sold throughout the entire country, so a rusted vehicle can appear just about anywhere, including at your local used car dealerships.
RUST CAN BE FOUND IN MANY PLACES. Many parts of a vehicle, including the vehicle’s frame, chassis, exhaust system, brake system, and suspension, are exposed to the elements and susceptible to rust. Rust can even bubble up from inside the body sheet metal panels and attack the painted surfaces of your vehicle. Getting rid of rust is challenging. It is easier to prevent rust than it is to eradicate it.
TO FIND IT, YOU MAY HAVE TO LIFT IT. Rust tends to affect the bottom of a vehicle first. Unfortunately, this presents a huge problem since the underside of a vehicle is not easily seen. For this reason, it is critical to place a vehicle on a hoist prior to purchasing. Once the vehicle is on a lift, the entire undercarriage can be carefully inspected for excessive rust.
THE COVERUP. Painting or applying an undercoating spray are common forms of deception used to cover up the presence of rust. This is usually done quickly and only on obvious components that can be easily viewed. Often the true condition of the vehicle can still be discovered when raised on a hoist and inspected with a quality flashlight and a sharp eye.
IT’S KIND OF A BIG DEAL. Flood damage is often difficult to detect because it does not happen gradually. Many visible signs of a flooded vehicle can be cleaned, repaired, concealed, or masked in order to sell a vehicle. A little investigative work may be required to determine if a vehicle has been in a flood, but the effort is worth it since modern vehicles are basically rolling computer systems filled with electronics from the engine to the seats and everything in between. It’s no secret: Electronics are not compatible with water.
THE SMELL TEST. The easiest flood damage test is to open the door of the vehicle and take a good sniff. Mildew and mold have a distinct smell, and even a trace amount of either one should be apparent if the vehicle has been sealed. You should also beware of vehicles that smell too good since a spray-on fabric freshener or air freshener can mask odors.
SHINE THE LIGHT ON THE INSIDE. Once you have smelled the interior, look under the seats with a quality flashlight. Inspect metal seat frames, seat tracks, and mounting brackets and bolts for any evidence of corrosion. Inspect under the dash for any corrosion or debris, including any unusual deposits of mud, sand, or grit. Inspect the assembly line diagnostic link (ALDL) connection for any evidence of corrosion. Look for signs of moisture, rust, watermarks, stains, or water rings on all trim, carpeting, seats, seat belts, pillars, and ceiling. While there may be the rare exception, there shouldn’t be any rust on the inside of a late-model vehicle. The presence of rust anywhere inside such a vehicle is an indication the vehicle may have been significantly flooded at some point.
CHECK FOR SIGNS UNDER THE HOOD. While the vehicle’s interior is the best place to start when searching for flood damage, tell-tale signs of water damage may reside under the hood as well. Look for debris that may have washed in and become deposited in the engine bay’s nooks and crannies. Unexplained leaves, silt, mud, and sand found inside the spark plug wire cavities are concerning and likely the result of floodwaters. Be suspicious of dirt buildup in unusual areas. Evidence of a water line on the firewall and inner fenders is also a sign of flood damage.
While under the hood, be sure to check the engine oil. If the vehicle is equipped with a transmission dipstick, check that as well. When oil mixes with even a small amount of water it becomes milky. The presence of water in the oil or transmission fluid is a bad sign.
When checking for flood damage, take a few minutes to inspect the paper air filter. Most of the time, the engine air filter can easily be exposed by removing a few retainer clips or screws. Once a paper has been wet it never looks the same. If the filter shows signs of any warping or water stains, you may want to keep looking for another vehicle.
RUST AND DEBRIS CAN BE SIGNS OF WATER DAMAGE. It is not uncommon for mud and debris to collect in hard to reach and hard to clean places, such as under the hood and in the trunk. However, rust on the heads of any exposed screws or bolts under the hood, around the doors, or in the trunk, indicates exposure to excessive moisture. Mud and debris on the underside of panels and brackets is another good sign the vehicle may have suffered water damage, especially if the vehicle has not been used for off-roading.
After you’ve inspected the interior and under the hood, take a walk around the vehicle. Look for signs of moisture in the light fixtures. While it may just be a leaking seal, fogged-up lights and water intrusion in lenses indicate the vehicle may have been submerged underwater. Get close and inspect for tiny holes in the lenses that may have been drilled to drain floodwater.
DRIVE BEFORE YOU BUY. When test driving a vehicle, be sure to test the vehicle’s electrical systems for water damage. When you start the vehicle, there should be no smoke or odd smells. Listen for irregular noises, such as warning buzzers that sound strained or just a bit off. Check every accessory to ensure everything is working properly including turn signals, windshield wipers/washers, lights, power windows, power door locks, the horn, seat heaters, heater and air conditioner, blower fan, cruise control, and navigation dashboard. If it can be switched on or off, you should switch it on and off. Turn on the vehicle’s entertainment system and listen to the audio. If the audio is distorted or the system doesn’t work, this again may be a sign the vehicle was once submerged in water.
TAKE A DEEPER DIVE. If there is a strong likelihood a vehicle has experienced flood damage, consider removing a door panel, lifting the carpet, or checking hidden electrical or mechanical components and connections that may be hiding evidence of refurbishment. It is not uncommon for rebuilders to take a flood-damaged vehicle and fix it up for resale. Flood damage can’t always be seen with the naked eye, and rebuilders can be pretty good at dressing up flood cars to look like nothing ever happened.
GET IT CHECKED OUT BY A PROFESSIONAL. Your vehicle should be inspected by a trusted, independent, ASE-certified technician before you buy, no matter what! The inspection should be thorough and include a test drive and lifting the vehicle so components can be checked from top to bottom. The cost of an inspection will pale in comparison to the financial cost of unknowingly purchasing a vehicle that has suffered flood or significant rust damage.