Car Care

How to spot flood damage in a vehicle

Recently the severe weather and torrential rain has wreaked havoc across New Zealand – including on our vehicles. We’ve all seen photos of cars floating in floodwater and upside-down utes, and as many as 10,000 vehicles are likely to be written off.

But flood damage isn’t always obvious. Just because water doesn’t run out when you open the door, doesn’t mean a car hasn’t been impacted by water. It might have been parked when water levels rose, or driven through deep water to escape flooding.

It’s helpful to know whether your car has been damaged by floodwater – you may need to make an insurance claim for repairs or replacement.

It’s even more important to be on the lookout for water damage if you’re considering buying a second-hand car. You don’t want to be caught out by a seller who doesn’t know that their vehicle has been impacted. Or worse, someone who is knowingly trying to sell you a waterlogged lemon or even a car that has already been written off.

Nine signs of a flood damaged car

Here are a few red flags that should immediately raise your suspicions when you’re looking at a used car:

  1. It was owned in an area that flooded. Check the vehicle’s ownership history – where was it previously registered? If it was owned in a flood-damaged region, that might indicate a higher risk of damage.
  2. A damp or musty smell. Water exposure will lead to mould, which can make the car smell; running the air conditioner can help identify inground odours. Any vehicle with all the windows down or a strong whiff of cleaning products should also make you take a closer look – is the seller trying to cover up a mouldy smell?
  3. Water stains on the upholstery or carpet. Large watermarks on the seats or carpet could be a sign of water damage. It’s also worth noticing if the carpet looks too new for the car. Has the seller recently replaced the carpet to hide the water damage?
  4. Dirt or silt in hard-to-clean spots. Silt, sand, and dirt will get into those hard-to-clean spots like the glovebox and under the seat. You might also spot dirt hiding in the engine bay.
  5. Condensation in the lights or inside the car. Is there moisture in the lights? Fogging might be a sign that water has got in. You might even see condensation on the windows if the interior is still damp.
  6. Misbehaving electronics. Water can easily damage electronics, making them stop working or work erratically. Check the lights, wipers, sound system, and indicators and make sure they’re all working normally.
  7. Rust. Are there rusty screws in the console, dashboard, or doors?
  8. Engine smoke. A smoking engine is a major warning sign of flooding.
  9. A suspiciously low price. If the price seems too good to be true, there’s probably a reason for it.

Inspections and certified dealers can reduce your risk of buying a flood-damaged car

Buying a used car can be a brilliant way to get a great deal, but it also comes with risks. Even a car that passes all the checks above now, and slowly reveal the signs of moisture damage and corrosion later. That’s why it’s important to get the car checked by an independent third-party expert, like by getting pre-purchase inspections. A pre-purchase inspection considers all these red flags, plus many additional checks. The MTA recommends you get a professional pre-purchase inspection whenever you buy a used car. With AA Pre-Purchase Inspection, you’ll get a comprehensive 100+ point vehicle check done by an expert and also an indication of any potential WOF issues – saving money in the long run.

Lastly, it’s worth to be more careful when dealing with private sellers. While it can be more cost-effective than buying from a dealer, you have the least protection if something goes wrong, particularly because the Consumer Guarantees Act doesn’t apply. Buying from a reputable and certified dealer, or from an AA Preferred Dealer Network, is much less risky.

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