Detect Water Damage in a Used Car Before Buying

Motor vehicles that have been damaged by water can cause problems for the owner shortly after the vehicle has dried out. As air dries out the moisture, corrosion begins. As corrosion progresses, components begin to fail. Electrical failures are among the first problems to be noticed. Here are some things to look for.


  1. Ask to see the title. Many states require that the vehicle's title indicate or be "branded" in such a way that it conveys that the vehicle has been submerged, much the same way it would be marked if it was ever used as a taxi, police vehicle or sold as "salvage" or "rebuilt". The first two are self-explanatory. The last, are not quite as apparent. A salvage vehicle is usually a vehicle that has been a "total loss" to an insurance company due to accident, fire, submersion, etc. These vehicles may also have been sold as "repairable wrecks" and have been restored to at least look like the original, but may have other problems. They are often purchased from salvage yards or directly from the insurance company, rebuilt and offered for sale. These vehicles have "rebuilt" titles. Be wary of vehicles that are marked as any of these types (the terminology for different types of vehicles may vary from region to region). These vehicles should be thoroughly checked by a trusted mechanic before purchasing.
  2. Note musty odors. Musty smells are indications of moisture. It is not unusual for older cars to have some mustiness - but beware. Water may have gotten into a vehicle if a window was left down or was broken. Rotted sheet metal around the rear wheels or rear window can cause a musty smelling trunk.
  3. Note heavy perfumes. The presence of perfumes (or other "air fresheners") might be an indication of an attempt to mask musty smells.
  4. Feel for dampness. Press your hand into carpeting under seats, as it would require seat removal to effectively remove moisture there. If no carpeting is present in the cabin, find an edge of rubber liner on floor and peel back to expose metal floor. Look for wetness, as it is difficult for moisture to evaporate when trapped between steel and rubber or vinyl. In the trunk, carefully reach into the area behind both of the rear wheels (if accessible). Check the spare tire storage space as well. Water will collect in these low spaces.
  5. Look for dark lines on fabrics. Water lines or marks are created at the "high water points" on fabrics. A continuous line should be visible along the length of any fabric (seats, rugs, headliner, etc.) that has been exposed to water and air at the same time.
  6. Look for rust. Rust will occur on any unpainted steel surface that is exposed to water. Since the inside of the trunk should never be exposed to water - rust found there is a sign that is was. Likewise, any rust found anywhere inside the cabin means water got in there, too.
  7. Look for new parts. Pay particular attention to the dashboard instrumentation. As mentioned above, if the odometer indicates a very low value for the year of the vehicle - it could indicate that the instrument cluster or entire dashboard was replaced due to water damage.
  8. Obtain a history report for the vehicle. The manufacturer or dealer may have some or all of this information available for free. Carfax is a service provider that maintains a database of many types of repairs and damages to vehicles, for a modest fee. Supply the VIN (it should be clearly visible through the windshield on the driver's side dashboard), or the license plate state and number (if currently registered) for look up in the online database.
  9. Shop at a reputable dealer. Reputable dealers do not want the headaches of selling vehicles that have questionable history. Dealers rely on their good reputation to stay in business. "Unhappy customer" stories spread much, much faster than "happy customer" stories, so most dealers do what they can to minimize this risk.


  • Some states provide for different levels of protection based on where a vehicle is purchased. Generally, the buyer has better protection purchasing from a licensed dealer rather than from a private party. Check with your insurance agent, motor vehicle department or state Attorney General's office to find out which protections are afforded to you.


  • Insurers generally consider submerged vehicles a "total loss". Since insurers are not known for "hurrying to pay claims", that's a pretty good reason why buyers should think long and hard before purchasing such a vehicle.
  • A vehicle that has been submerged in salt water has or will have serious issues. Since salt is highly corrosive, it causes more damage in shorter periods of time. It is best to avoid any vehicle that is suspected of being submerged, particularly if it was in salt water.

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