How to spot a flood car
- Start with VINCheck, a free service by the National Insurance Crime Bureau that looks up records by vehicle identification number. This could reveal whether the car was ever deemed flood-damaged. For safe measure, also check the VIN for free at CARFAX and AutoCheck.
Because VIN checks may reveal flood damage only if the insurance company deemed the vehicle totaled, you should pay attention to the location of previous owners. You may want to avoid vehicles from areas of recent flooding or hurricanes.
- The nose knows. Musty smells indicate mildew buildup that couldn't be cleaned, whereas overpowering air fresheners suggest the seller may be hiding something. Avoid vehicles with either.
- Be suspicious of carpeting that looks too new, is discolored or has water stains. Also check the engine, the glove compartment, door panels, under seats and the spare tire well for water lines or signs of mud, silt or rust.
- Check for water condensation, fogging or water lines inside headlights, taillights and dashboard gauges.
- Turn the key to ensure that accessory and warning lights and gauges — including the airbag and ABS indicators — come on and work properly. During a test drive, repeatedly test electrical equipment — wipers, turn signals, heater, air conditioner, power windows and locks. These systems are likely to fail in a flood car.
- Under the hood, check engine wires. They should bend easily; if they're too stiff (water immersion can cause that), they will likely crack.
- In later-model vehicles, beware of premature flaking or rust on the undercarriage.
Also of interest: Buying a car? Look for these safety features. >>
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.
Published July 11, 2011