Tip Sheet

Buyer beware: How to spot a flooded secondhand car

Quick tips to detect if something's fishy

How to tell if a car has been flooded.

It's not always easy buying a used car. Aside from scam artists, "hot" cars, lemons and rebuilt wrecks, Philippine buyers also have to contend with flooded vehicles being sold at regular prices.

Now, if you do want to take the risk of buying a flooded car with all the electrical, mechanical and rust issues that will plague it for the rest of its usable life, it's your lookout. But you have the right to know if the car you're looking at has been 6ft under water at some point in its life. So here are a few quick tips for detecting if something fishy is going on when you're looking at a secondhand car.

1. Just ask. Not every seller is going to be honest about it, but some will gladly spill the beans. And if they do admit to flood damage, you can then quiz them on what issues the car might still have. This allows you to make an informed decision on whether to take the risk. If they don't admit and you find out otherwise, walk away.

2. Perform visual inspection. Sometimes, telltale marks can be left on the car. They can be any of the following:

* Watermarks etched into the paint;
* Fabric stains;
* Discolored trim; or
* Grass and debris hanging from the undercarriage or stuck in the radiator.

But most people trying to conceal flood damage will likely have the car detailed, so don't count on such obvious clues alone.

3. Check for misty eyes. Moisture in one or two headlights is normal. Moisture and even water inside most exterior lights is not. An even more telltale sign is moisture buildup inside the instrument cluster, and any discoloration or watermarks therein.

4. Search for "dirty laundry." It's not always easy to clean debris out after a flood. Look for dried mud in hard-to-reach and inaccessible places, like the margin of the dashboard under the windshield where debris can settle; under the dash or inside the seats; and at the points where you can pull aside the seat foam to expose the unpainted metal supports and reinforcements underneath.

5. Inspect rust. Rust in the chair frames and bare metal bracing under the dashboard can be signs of flooding in newer cars. Be aware, however, that light surface rust does form in older cars, even without flooding, especially in a humid climate like ours. But if there is continuous, deep-seated rust rather than the typical light spotting, or if there are rust marks or scorch marks on the wiring under the dash, in the fuse box or even inside the lighter socket, then that's a sign of water damage.

6. Find out if there's junk in the trunk. Don't forget to check for rust and mud in the trunk, where it can be left under the carpet or in the spare tire compartment even after cleaning, and behind the fabric or plastic panels lining the trunk area.

7. Because the nose knows, smell it. While detailing can remove many of the obvious signs of flood damage, the smell is a lot harder to get rid of. Just ask anyone who has ever been in a smoker's car. It might be a bit, er, icky, but if you really need to check, get your nose down close to the carpet and seat cushions to try and catch a hint of any musty odor. These things may get wet and musty due to our climate, even without flooding, but they're a good indicator that the inside of the car has been very, very wet at one point.

8. Try and pry before you buy. A test drive and inspection are always a good idea before buying a used car. Weird electrical gremlins, rough running and muddy-colored coolant and/or engine oil are all signs that something's wrong. And whether the car was flooded or not, they're all indicators that maybe you should be looking at another car instead.

9. Caveat emptor (buyer beware). Not all of the above indicators necessarily mean flooding, but put together, they paint a more comprehensive picture. Always keep yourself protected when buying secondhand. There are a lot of charlatans out there willing to fob off their flooded headache on someone else. If you're buying from someone you don't know, best to be extra cautious and ensure you can still run after them if it turns out they've unloaded a lemon on you.

And remember: Those with something to hide are often the most defensive. If an ad says "Not flooded," then flood damage should be the very first thing you look for when you see the car.

Photo from Eric Gajudo

Also Read

Watch now
  • Quiz Results

  • TGP Rating:

    Starts at ₱

    TGP Rating:
    Starts at ₱