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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 vehicles totaled by water damage, often many thousands of miles away from where it occurred. If the sellers are thorough, car flood damage symptoms can be hard to spot. Here are a few giveaways 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. Even reputable dealers can 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. 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.


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. Run your finger around ledges looking for sandy, gritty buildup — not to be confused with regular dust.

Water in Weird Places

Check the spare tire compartment for signs of moisture, inside the headlights for standing water or fog, and underneath the car 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

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.


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.


Check engine, transmission, power steering 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.

Shady Electronics

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.

Finding one of these 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.

Check out all the maintenance parts available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on car flood damage symptoms, 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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