How to avoid buying a flood-damaged car

A car in a flood
Because it's not always this obvious...
"If your car was purchased from a car dealer and fails or is proven to be flood-damaged, you can reject it under the Consumer Rights Act"
  • | by Scott Huntingdon

Buying a used car is a great money saver, but it can be difficult to discover the history of the vehicle, especially if it's passed through multiple hands.

One of the hardest things to tell about your new purchase is whether or not your used car has been damaged by a flood.

Car blogger Scott Huntingdon writes car blog Off The Throttle. He was once interviewed to be America’s answer to Clarkson on the US version of Top Gear, so he knows a thing or two about spotting a dud motor.

He lets us in on how you can tell if you’ve purchased a flood car, and what you should do if you discover this after the fact.

Why are flood cars so hard to spot?

A flood car probably won’t look water-damaged.

Car dealerships and private sellers do everything possible to hide the fact that these cars have been damaged by rising waters.

There are a few things you can look out for, though, that might indicate your new used car has spent some time submerged.

New upholstery in an old car

There are perfectly honest reasons for replacing the upholstery in an older model, but it can be a sign of water damage, too.

Mouldy smell in the air con

A woman holding her nose

We've all heard of new car smell, but maybe you should be more alert to 'flood car pong'.

When you take the car for a test drive, make sure you turn on the air conditioning.

A mouldy or mildew smell in the car could be masked with air fresheners, but it’s harder to clean out the interior of the air conditioning system.

High water lines

Check under the bonnet or in the undercarriage.

Have you ever seen a high tide or high water line on the side of a tree or building?

Flood cars often have the same telltale marks. If the outside of the car has been cleaned, look under the hood or underneath the body of the car itself. These places are often overlooked by flood car sellers.

Check the boot too - it’s often forgotten when the rest of the car is restored and may have high water lines or mouldy upholstery hidden within.

Look for faulty electronics

Check the radio, the lights and everything in the interior or exterior of the car.

Look for water in the head and tail lamps as well - water tends to accumulate in these locations and is often overlooked when it’s being restored.

Use the dipstick

Someone pulling a dipstick out of a car engine

Even if the car runs, it’s important to check inside the engine for water.

This can be as simple as checking the oil.

If the oil appears white and milky on the dipstick or the oil cap, it may have been water-damaged.

Check the car’s history

Flood damage might not be apparent, but it can appear on a car’s history.

For cars registered in the UK, an HPI report can provide some damage or write-off history.

It may not say outright that the car was damaged in a flood, but it can give you some information about where the car was registered or whether it’s an insurance write-off.

If it was registered in an area that was flooded while the car was parked there, you probably should check for other signs of flood damage.

For cars that have been imported from the States - for instance if you’ve just purchased your dream muscle car - the first place to look would be Carfax. You input the car’s VIN and can buy a report that details the ownership and damage history of a particular car.

Help! I’ve bought a flood-damaged car!

A dodgy car dealer

If you’ve purchased a flood car from a private seller, you have less legal protection than if you purchased it from a dealership.

If your car was purchased from a car dealer and fails or is proven to be flood-damaged, you can reject it under the Consumer Rights Act - but act quickly as you only have 30 days to get a full refund.

The act states that the car must be as described, of satisfactory quality and fit for purpose.

If you’ve purchased a flood-damaged car without being told about it, you can reject the car, and the dealership is required to repair the faults, replace the car or refund your money in part or in full, so you’re not stuck with a flood car if you do accidentally purchase one.