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How can you tell if a used car has been in a flood?

Posted at 9:29 AM, Mar 04, 2016

When you're car shoppping, can you spot a flood-damaged car?

There's a good chance you can't.

We put shoppers to the test to see if they could recognize a flood damaged car, and they couldn't tell the difference.

First, with the help of CARFAX and a used car dealer, we set two used Ford Fusions, one red, one burgundy, in the parking lot of a shopping center. On the surface, these cars these two cars looked almost identical, with clean engines, spotless interiors. But one of them was holding a secret: it had been under water up to the dashboard. But thanks to a great cleanup job, from the outside the car looked immaculate.

It's what lies beneath that you have to be concerned about.

"Water definitely got into the engine" of the previously flooded car, Chris Basso of CARFAX said. "It got into the soft parts of the red car and the spare tire wheelwell."

When we asked shoppers like Lynette Martin if she could figure out which car was damaged, she looked and looked and finally said, "No, not really!"

CARFAX says thousands of flood-damaged cars -- from Texas other places -- are headed for used car lots around the country this spring.

"They can easily be moved here and unfortunately resold to unsuspecting consumers who don't do their homework," Basso said.

Basso showed us some of the warning signs of flood damage:

  • Rusty seat rails down by the carpeting, which are very hard to hide. "One of the first things you want to do is look at the metal parts of the car, the seat rails in particular," Basso said.
  • Headlights foggy on the inside. "The seals in the headlight have already failed," Basso said. And you could see moisture trapped inside the lights.
  • Dampness in the trunk that is almost impossible to completely eliminate. "There was standing water in here that was all cleared up and dried," Basso said. "But when you lift up the carpets, you can clearly tell there's still moisture sitting on the spare tire."

Unfortunately, many buyers never notice.

One family we asked to guess which car was damaged never noticed the mildew smell in the red car.

Only when one car failed to start did they suspect a problem. "The battery's dead," a customer said.

It was a good catch: flooded cars often have many electrical problems, from shorts to rusting wires. And that can be almost impossible to fix.

So how can you protect yourself?

Basso says you can start by ordering a CARFAX or similar history report. "It's properly identified," he said, "and there is a red flag that says this car is flooded, with a salvage title."

Even then, though, nothing beats an inspection by a mechanic. Zach Sweeney of Jake Sweeney Automotive says his ASE-certified mechanics will look over any car for a little over $100.

"Get it inspected by a certified dealer," he said. "It's small fee, but it will save you a lot of time and headache down the road."

Otherwise, you too could fall in love with a shiny red car, only to learn later it was flooded all the way up to the windows, with years of trouble ahead.

Do your homework, and don't waste your money.