Your nose is a great tool in determining whether a car has sustained significant water damage. Virtually every flood-damaged vehicle will have an unusual musty smell brought on by mold or mildew. No matter how dry a car might appear, use your nose to determine if it's been flood-damaged in the past.
Look for water or grit inside the car and inside the engine compartment. Check under the dashboard for dried mud or residue and be sure to lift the trunk mats and check for signs of water, dirt, or mud. Check for water stains in or around areas of the vehicle that typically aren't exposed to the elements and don't forget to look for unusual or excessive moisture in the car's gauges. Finally, pay close attention to your car's original equipment for signs of residue or moisture, including the upholstery, headliner, gauges, electrical components, lights, stereo, and speakers.
Check for recently shampooed carpet and be sure to inquire about newly installed carpets or headliners (especially in newer-model cars). In a majority of situations, carpets and headliners will last for many years without needing repair or replacement.
Look for rust on the inside of the car under interior carpeting. And check for rust on screw heads inside the console or other areas of the car where water typically doesn't reach. Finally, check for surface rust under the trunk.
“A flood-damaged car can be cleaned to look new again and the title can be 'washed' – a process where the damage disclosure's been erased,” according to Mark Perleberg, lead auto expert at NADAguides.com. “Unfortunately, the electronics and wiring of flood-damaged vehicles will ultimately corrode causing system failure to major components. Not only is this costly, it's a safety hazard as well.”
"These inspection suggestions won't detect flood damage in every case but they're a great starting point," said Perleberg. "We advise shoppers to obtain a vehicle history report and perform their own inspection. If you're still not satisfied, hire a professional mechanic to take a look at the vehicle prior to purchase for added peace of mind."