Purchasing a pre-owned vehicle can be a great investment. If kept in good condition, a used vehicle can be just as reliable and more cost-effective than a brand new one. However, with all the benefits of buying used come a few risks, especially if you are buying from a private owner. One thing that’s important to check for before you purchase a used vehicle is water damage, since this can cause serious problems down the line if it hasn’t already. However, water damage can be tricky to spot, since the more obvious signs can be easy for an owner to hide. Here are ten things to check for to cover all your bases when it comes to checking for water damage.
1. A Musty Odor or an Overly Strong Air Freshener
Mildew, low tide, and musty odors are all signs that a car has probably been exposed to a great deal of water. Once these smells have seeped in, it is very hard to completely get rid of them. If you’re looking at a used vehicle, get in and close all the doors and windows. Sit in the car for a few minutes and then crack the door open just a bit to see if you smell anything unusual. Make sure you turn on the air conditioner, as well, to see if there are any strange smells coming from the vents. You should also be cautious of overly strong air fresheners, which are often used to cover up smells associated with water damage. This is the easiest way to spot water damage, but there are other telltale signs, as well.
2. Mismatched Carpets
If a section of a vehicle’s interior is a different shade or appears newer than the surrounding carpet, it could be a sign that the car has seen water damage. Check underneath every seat. Look for material that has been cut and sewn over. Compare the material on the doors and roof to see if they all have the same wear and age. There is a chance the carpet might have been replaced to increase the value of the car, but it is not typically the first priority, so proceed with caution and make sure you inquire about it.
3. Moisture in Electronics and Gauges
Inspect the car’s electronics and gauges in the instrument panel. Look for moisture that has been trapped behind the plastic. Grab your flashlight and look under the dashboard and in the console. Condensation behind the radio face or gauge cluster could mean the car was flooded.
4. Damp Spots
Check the interior for past water damage by patting down the car for any damp spots. Pay special attention under the seats because these areas are harder for the seller to dry. If you do manage to find a damp spot, try to lift the carpet and check the padding. The seller might be able to dry out the carpet, but foam padding retains moisture for much longer. Don’t forget to check the carpet in the trunk, as well. Water tends to collect in the trunk and even a thorough inspection might miss it.
5. Excessive Rust or Corrosion
Corrosion and rust are important to look for when checking for water damage. Rust is natural, but a 2012 vehicle shouldn’t have the rusting of a 1999. Corrosion, meanwhile, eats away at the car’s materials even after it has dried. Make sure to check for rust and corrosion on both the exterior and the interior; check hinges, screws, springs, latches, and brackets, any of which could indicate prolonged contact with water. Use a mirror to check the springs under the seat, as well.
6. Fogging in Headlamps and Taillights
As much as a seller might want to cover up water damage on his or her car, some areas just won’t dry. Look at all the lamps on the car. When water has accumulated inside of them they will appear foggy, similar to the dashboard you checked earlier. Check the headlights, taillights, and exterior mirrors. Even if the car has been partially flooded, these lamps will show signs of it.
7. Look for Dirt Build-up
If a car has been submerged in water, that water was probably carrying all kinds of debris, like sand, dirt, and grass. After the water goes down, a lot of this debris will stay, and it’s very hard to remove all of it. Check the trunk, under the dashboard, under and inside the glove compartment, under the seats, around the wiring, in the engine nooks, and under the spare tires. If you find any kind of dirt, grass, or other debris, your prospective purchase might have been sitting in water for a stretch of time.
8. Test-drive the Car
Test the car thoroughly by taking it for a test drive; this is the best way to see if the electrical system has been compromised. First, check the wires under the dashboard. If they’re rough but still delicate, this could be a sign of water damage. To be sure, take the car out for a drive. Listen to the ignition for any strange sounds. Check the headlights, turn signals, and dashboard lights. Turn on the wipers and air conditioner to make sure they work how they should. Lastly, check the radio. If the system looks too new for the age of the car, it may have been replaced due to water damage. Again, like with the carpet, ask the seller about it before you take the car home.
9. Get an Expert’s Opinion
Experts and mechanics can often spot water damage in just a few minutes. They may do a more thorough inspection and check hidden electrical parts for original parts if they are suspicious. Although you will have to pay for this, it is well worth it if it can prevent a serious problem with your purchase down the road. An expert can examine places you might not be able to, like mechanical parts and pumps. You have invested a lot in your vehicle, so you don’t want to buy a damaged car that will cost you thousands in the long run.
10. Check the Title and do a VIN Check
Checking the title will let you see if the car was in a flood-damaged area. Check for a stamp that reads “salvage” or “flood.” “Salvaged” means that the car was considered too damaged to be worth fixing. Ask for a vehicle history report so you can see detailed documentation of the car. This is the easiest way to see if a car has been seriously damaged by a flood, but sellers may not always be honest. You should always make an effort to do a personal examination of the car you’re thinking of buying.