There’s so very many flooded cars listlessly bobbing around the streets of the Northeast Megalopolis , it’s really just a matter of time before a good number of them start showing up for sale. Some may be sold with full transparency, and you’ll be aware you’re looking at a car that was once a submarine. But not everyone’s going to be so forthcoming. This is a guide to those cars.
Ideally, a car’s title should reflect if it had been flooded; it should have a salvage or flood title, indicating the car had spent time under water to at least its engine compartment. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume you don’t have any such verification, and let’s see what you can determine with just your senses.
In some ways, this is the most obvious indicator, but it can be masked, mitigated or hidden. If you smell any sort of musty, moist odors, that’s a big hint. Get down on all fours and sniff in the footwells and under the dash. Run the A/C and heat and see what the air from the HVAC system smells like.
Also, too many good smells can be a warning as well. Is the car way too old to have so much new car smell? Does it smell like cleaning product or air fresheners, or anything like that? Any overpowering smell should trigger your floodshit sensors.
Scrutinize The Electricals, like an OCD Sherlock Holmes.
This is by far the most critical part. The mechanical systems of the car are much more tolerant of water than the electrical. Water-logged and dried electrical systems may be made to work, but even a little bit of trapped moisture can lead to corrosion and other problems down the road. Problems that can be huge ass-pains to isolate. You'll want to look out for any weirdness at all.
There's some obvious giveaways; for example, if the car is relatively new and higher-end, but has a relatively cheap aftermarket head unit. Generally, people don't do that sort of thing unless, say, the stock radio was ruined by being underwater.
If possible, get the car to a dark area and turn on the ignition. Don't turn on any lights or anything. Look at the dash instruments— can you see any indicator lights glowing, without being entirely illuminated? This is often a subtle symptom of electrical gremlins, as a bit of current "leaks" into other circuits and can sometimes semi-illuminate warning lights and other indicators. Check any LCD or LED display panels— is there any condensation under the glass? Are there any errant patterns of pixels, or LED number segments that seem stuck on? All of these things can indicate the insidious creep of moisture.
After checking the dash, try everything. Wipers, lights, radio, fan, seat heaters, any and everything you can. Find the fusebox and take some fuses out. Are the terminals discolored or corroded in any way? Get a wooden toothpick and probe in the sockets— when you remove it, is there any dirt or grit or moisture on the tip?
Open the hood, check the battery terminals, and any push-on terminals you see. Remove a few and check for corrosion or discoloration. Be thorough here, and keep your eyes open for details. Feel the wires- if the car is newish, but the insulation feels brittle and stiff, that could indicate submersion.
Does The Wear Make Sense?
A reconditioned flooded car will likely have many of its softer, porous, wearable parts replaced. Even if the car is fairly new, the driver's side footwell and seat should show some wear. The pedal's rubber should have some wear marks, the seat should look at least a bit sat in, and the carpet shouldn't be perfect. Too little wear on any often-used parts is a dead giveaway that something's been changed out.
Look for disparities— does the steering wheel and shift knob look worn, but the door panels and carpet look new? Are the colors somewhat more faded than what the age of the car would suggest? Be hypercritical if you suspect anything.
Feel the edges of the carpet— can you see evidence the carpet had been removed and replaced? Are all the small trim parts in place? All the screws there? If you can pop out the lower edge of the inner door panel trim, do so. Feel inside— any moisture or grit? Any obvious rust or corrosion?
Find The Secret Compartments of Truth
When a car is flooded, it's usually not with Evian— there will be dirt and grit. It's likely the car will have been well-cleaned, but you should try and find traps for dirt and grip to confirm things. Good places to check are inside body panels. The inner trunk lid of most cars has bent sheet-metal supports for strength, and these welded-on channels are usually hollow, and have some access holes. Try stuffing cotton into the head of a bendy straw to make a sort of little probe. Stick it in any holes into inner sheet metal surfaces and see if it's wet or dirty when it comes out— some dust and dirt is normal, but silt and sludge is not.
Remove the spare tire, look in the well— are there water stains of any kind? Are things like the tool kit missing? Check for paper-based informational stickers that are often inside the spare wheel well and trunk. They won't hold up well to soaking at all, and if they're gone or obvious new ones are in place, walk away. Who removes all the little stickers from the nooks of their trunk? Reference a good model so you know what should be there, and be wary if anything's different.
Feel inside wheel wells, reach up and into bumpers, look for condensation in all the lights. Move rearview mirrors so you can see behind the glass mirror— anything moist hiding in there? Feel, smell, and swab everywhere you can.
If you suspect the car you're looking at may be a flood-victim vehicle, don't be afraid to be brutal- water damage and corrosion is insidious and often worse where you can't see or get to it. I'd say if you're looking at a vintage car, you can take a few more risks, but anything with a remotely modern electrical system needs to be approached with caution. If you can prove the car is flooded, but seems fixable, I'd think you could make that a pretty big haggling point. But, if you're not interested in taking the risk, and something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Now if you'll excuse me, I just saw an awesome Audi R8 on Queens Craigslist that looks totally sweet. Only $4500!
(original image Alvaro Garcia)