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Car Flood Damage Symptoms: How to Avoid a Lemon

Learn how to check for car flood damage symptoms, like these cars will have.

Car Flood Damage Symptoms: How to Avoid a LemonBuying a used car is always a little nerve-wracking. What if you miss something major and end up with a lemon? With the spate of recent hurricanes, you can bet that some unscrupulous sellers will try to scrub titles or do whatever else they can to resell flood damaged cars totaled by water damage, often many thousands of miles away from where it occurred. These vehicles won’t have a “flood damaged cars for sale” sign on them unfortunately. If the sellers are thorough, car flood damage symptoms can be hard to spot. Here’s how to know if a car has flood damage that you or a trusted mechanic can search for to give you peace of mind.

Title Check

There are ways around reporting flood damage, but this is always a good place to start. There are a number of companies that offer reports on a car’s history, and you should always take advantage of the information they offer. For example both CARFAX and AutoCheck offer a free check to see if a vehicle has a flooded branded title. When reviewing a vehicle history report grab a map and check if it was registered in areas known for flooding or storm damage. Keep in mind that even reputable dealers can miss signs of flood damaged cars and accidently pass flood-damaged vehicles on unknowingly.


Mold and mildew are notoriously difficult to remove. The smell especially will linger in the upholstery and dark places like A/C vents and consoles. So get in there, turn the A/C on and give everything a good sniff. Are odors being masked by a strong air freshener? That’s not a great sign. Try sniffing around the corners of the trunk or the spare tire well where it is less likely for someone to spray air freshener.


It’s similarly difficult to remove the fine layer of silt that covers everything after a flood. Look around gaps and corners in the engine compartment and difficult-to-clean spaces in the interior. Pull back the carpet in the trunk or cargo area. Grab a good flashlight and really look around. Take out the spare tire and emergency jack and look around. Run your finger around ledges looking for sandy, gritty buildup — not to be confused with regular dust. You are looking for silt in places where normal everyday wear wouldn’t never put dirt.

Water in Weird Places

The only appropriate place for water is outside the car or in the cup holder. Check the spare tire compartment for signs of moisture (some vehicles have a foam insert that holds the spare and jack, remove that if possible to check under). Look inside the headlights and tail lights for standing water or fog. Check underneath the car with a flashlight to see if the rubber drain plugs have recently been removed. Open the hood and look for watermarks on the engine, firewall and air filter.

Upholstery Check

One of the often overlooked signs of flood damage in a car is an interior that is slightly off. Aside from retaining smells, the upholstery might also have watermarks. Like using air fresheners to mask odors, someone might have tried to hide the damage by reupholstering the entire thing, so be on the lookout for something unusual like brand-new seats or rugs. Remove any aftermarket seat covers and check the factory seats underneath. Check the fit and finish of the carpet around the edges to see if it has been replaced. Factory installed carpet will be neat and tidy, while an aftermarket replacement may be uneven or not tucked in completely.


Rust is one of the biggest giveaways, but make sure you keep in mind the age of the vehicle when making the assessment. Later-model vehicles should not have rusting along doorways or the undercarriage, and unpainted metal surfaces on the interior shouldn’t ever really be rusty. Look under the dash and seats for any metal support beams which may have corrosion. Remove screw covers on interior trim and check for hidden rust on the fasteners.


Check engine, transmission, power steering, brake, and rear-end oil for color and consistency. Finding it thick, cloudy or milky is a sign that the oil has mixed with water. This kind of contamination can quickly damage components internally. On the flip side, if all of the fluids have been recently changed it may be a sign of a coverup, especially the more often ignored fluids like power steering and transmission.

Shady Electronics

One of the biggest problems with flood damaged cars is damage to the electrical system. How does the radio work? Turn signals? Check electronics for operation, but also get under the hood and look to see if there are signs of deterioration at connections or corrosion along the many wires running throughout. Be on the lookout for blue or green mold-like deposits in the fuse box or around electrical connections, but know that this buildup is standard on battery terminals. Turn on the ignition (but don’t start it) to verify that all the dashboard indicator lights illuminate. If the check engine light doesn’t appear, someone may have yanked the bulb to hide an issue. Grab an OBD II scanner and run a diagnostic test on the vehicle. There should be no trouble codes stored and the malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) monitor should be off. Any stored trouble codes should be researched and discussed with the seller for an explanation.

Finding one of these car flood damage symptoms might not mean the car has flood damage. If you find a couple, however, you should seriously consider looking elsewhere. Always talk to the seller and take a test drive, and it’s never a bad idea to get a professional mechanic on board to give their opinion. In times of high car prices and low car supply, it can be tempting to snatch up a supposed good deal. But a thorough pre-purchase inspection by your local NAPA AutoCare could save you thousands down the road. Finally if the seller balks at your thorough inspection or allowing the vehicle to be inspected at the facility of your choice, walk away.

Check out all the inspection tools available on NAPAOnline or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on car flood damage symptoms and saving yourself from buying a flood car, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA Auto Parts store.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.


Blair Lampe View All

Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter.  In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.

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