How to avoid buying a water-damaged car

We welcome the rain filling up our dams and reservoirs, especially with the current water restrictions – however, we can’t ignore the damage that can be caused by storms and floods.

Flood water can potentially cause severe damage to our cars that is often hard to spot once the car has dried. If you’re on the market for a second-hand car, you definitely don’t want to be buying a damaged car.

What damages are these, you ask?

  • Damage to airbags - in some cases resulting in them opening unexpectedly from electrical system failure
  • Damage to components like your brakes
  • Damage to starter motors and catalytic converters
  • Overall damage to electrical and electronic systems

A mistake often made is thinking that all a car needs after being flooded is good airing and a good time to dry off.

When the damage is not clearly evident, you need to know what to look out for to prevent you from buying a car with potentially fatal faults. Buying a car is a huge investment and commitment, so there is nothing wrong with being a little aggressive on the inspection process to prevent you from buying a headache on wheels.

Here’s what to look out for:

  • Do a full vehicle history check. This will give you access to the history of the car and prevent you from buying a car which has actually been written-off due to flood damage.
  • Electrics don’t lie… If a car had been in deep waters, the electric system will show signs of suffering. Check all the car lights – you may still find a visible water line to indicate flooding. Be sure to also check all other electronically operated items, such as windows, to make sure they work as they should. Switching on the heating system could come in handy... trapped water in the heating and ventilation system often leads to excess condensation – if the windows start steaming up, start asking questions.
  • Look under the bonnet! Don’t be shy to pop the hood and check for rust or corrosion under the bonnet - and also check for water where there shouldn’t be any. This is also where having a mechanic on standby could come in handy – they can check the more crucial (and complicated) parts like the starter motor.
  • Beware of the rust. Yes, used cars may have a bit of rust, but it should be consistent and mileage of the car. If the rust doesn’t match up with the age of the car and is excessive, this could be a red flag for water damage. Check things like the heads of exposed screws, unpainted metal and other potentially rusty bits – from the doors to beneath the boot, to beneath the dashboard where water wouldn’t normally be.
  • Check for loose bits. If any parts that should be there are missing, you may want to ask why. Check if the seat mounting screws have ever been removed. This would have been done when removing the seats in attempt to dry the carpets… and this is not normal maintenance, so don’t be fooled! Also check whether the rubber drain plugs under the car have ever been replaced or removed – a sign of floodwater drainage.
  • Sniff, tap and flip… you would think that the car would have completely dried out from being aired, however some areas are a real pain and never dry off completely. These are the areas you want to be checking! Check the carpets like a crime scene investigator looking for evidence. Feel your way around the car for any damp spots and sniff around for damp and musty smells.

Obviously, having an actual mechanic do the check for you would be first prize, but if one isn’t available or the cost of bringing one in is too much to handle, knowing what to look out for in order to ask the right questions is a good back-up plan. If there are too many red flags, then walking away may just be a safer option.

If the car has any flood damage, remember to ask for any proof that the necessary work has been done on the car. Buying a flooded car that’s not had critical components replaced could be like buying a ticking time bomb of expensive and even dangerous problems.

Now we know that not every car coming out of a storm will be damaged, but don’t take chances with yours. Check whether your car insurance adequately covers you for such unfortunate incidents.

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