Flood car test: could you spot a flooded car?

Posted at 6:16 PM, Feb 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-01 13:43:29-05

If you're looking for a used car this year, could you spot one that was in a flood? There's a good chance you may not.

So we put shoppers to the test, to see if they could recognize a flood damaged car.

Two Almost Identical Cars...Except...

With the help of CARFAX, and a used car dealer, we set two used Ford Fusions out in a shopping center: one red, one burgundy.

But one of them was holding a secret: it had been underwater up to the dashboard. But thanks to a great cleanup job, from the outside, the car looked immaculate.

On the surface, these two cars looked almost identical, with clean engines and spotless interiors. But it's what lies beneath that you have to be concerned about.

Chris Basso of CARFAX said, "Water definitely got into the engine, it got into the soft parts of the red car, and the spare tire wheel well."

Shoppers Baffled

But 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.

What to Check For

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

One: rusty seat rails 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.

Another red flag: Headlights foggy on the inside. "The seals in the headlight have already failed," Basso said, and you could see moisture trapped inside the lights.

And deep in the trunk: Dampness 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 never noticed the mildew smell in the red car: "Did you smell anything, anything?" Basso asked them. "No, nothing," they replied.

Only when one car failed to start did they suspect a problem. "There's no battery, the battery's dead," a customer said.

It was a good catch: flooded cars often have many electrical problems such as shorted and rusting wires. And it can be almost impossible to fix.

What You Can Do

So how can you protect yourself? Basso says 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. It's a small fee, but it will save you a lot of time and headache down the road," he said.

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

That way you don't waste your money.    


Don't Waste Your Money is a registered trademark of the EW Scripps Co.

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