Flood damaged vehicles are always a concern when buying used, but even more so with the devastating hurricanes of 2017. Unfortunately, some people are willing to buy flood cars cheap, slightly refurbish them, “wash” the title, and resell them for a profit as perfectly reliable vehicles. There usually isn’t a dumpster full of rice nearby after a flood, so unlike your cell phone, these vehicles will never be without issues. To prevent from buying a potential lemon, here’s what to look for in a flood damaged vehicle.

Exterior Inspection

A flood damaged exterior can be easily fixed, for the most part. A professional detailing and some touch-up paint can go a long way to convincing you it was never underwater. Instead of checking body panels, get up close to the details. Check any chrome, stainless steel, or exposed iron for rust. In a modern vehicle there won’t be huge 1950s-style chrome bumpers, but instead you’ll be looking at the smaller stuff, like the grille, wheel center caps, and brake rotors. Also get a good look at the headlights and tail lights. Most exterior lights are sealed housings designed to keep water out. A flood is beyond most engineering requirements, so flood water seeps in and can still be visible even weeks or months later. If you see an inch of dirty water hanging out in the bottom of a tail light, just know it’s not a new trend. Walk away.

Interior Review

Have a seat in the vehicle, and close the door. Does it smell musty and stale? There is a lot of upholstery that gets soaked in a flood, and it can get that mildew and mold growing in as little as 12 hours. It’s hard to clean inside the ventilation vents, so run the A/C or heater and take a sniff for anything unusual. Also watch for excessive “new car smell.” Thirty seven air freshener trees hidden under the seats are a warning sign that the seller is covering up something. Other interior warning signs are stiff cloth seats (from leftover soap/conditioner), and rusty fasteners, like the metal bolts in the bottom of the center console bin. This is your sign that it’s okay to start looking under the carpet at the condition of the floor pan. The trunk usually provides easiest access to the pan by pulling at a corner of the carpet. If you see rust under the carpet, pass on this one.

Test Drive

While the interior and exterior can be repaired fairly easily, the drivetrain is where a mechanic or insurance agent will say ,“It’ll never drive the same again.” If you’ve made it to the test drive, you might be in good shape. Still, see how the vehicle operates in a normal drive. All electrics, from the GPS and power windows, to the instrument cluster and interior lights, should operate normally. A “check engine” light could be something minor, or a huge red flag. A modern vehicle has hundreds of computers, relays, and sensors, many of which were never designed to get wet. A flood corrodes the unprotected metal, slowly reducing the electrical connection until it fails, and the computer throws a code and the check engine light. While sensors or fuses are a quick and affordable repair, you are looking at hundreds of points of failure over the next several years. Your choices are to work the gremlins out over the next decade, pay a mechanic five figures to rewire the entire vehicle, or do like insurance does and write this one off.

With the recent hurricane season destroying as many as 1.4 million vehicles, you have to acknowledge that flood damaged vehicles will be hiding out there in your vehicle search. While your diligence and thorough inspection help, sometimes only a professional can catch a well refurbished flood vehicle.