Cosmetically, it is labor-intensive but not that difficult to restore a flooded car, most of it involving cleaning and drying the interior, and replacing what can't be suitably restored. Everything that could hold water must be removed — side sill plates under the doors, the seats, the carpet, the carpet and spare tire in the trunk, even — and can't be replaced until everything's completely dry.
Under the hood, a good power washing can remove any visible evidence of flood damage.
But it's the hidden damage you have to worry about. It takes a good soaking outside the car to cause substantial damage — after all, the engine, transmission and other external parts are designed to withstand splashing through thousands of miles of puddles — but inside, it doesn't take much water to ruin a vehicle. Wiring, electrical connections and instruments are especially susceptible. Freshwater is bad, saltwater — well, just go ahead and total out the car.
CarFax, the leading title-search company, offers hints to help spot a damaged car, but first, a note about the effectiveness of CarFax and similar services: They can only report to you what has been reported to them. If no claim was filed with an insurance company, or no incident report filed with the local government or police department, there's no way for CarFax to pick that up.
Same thing with flood damage: If you can dry the car out, clean it up and sell it before the electrical parts corrode and fail, maybe you can get away with it. CarFax reports alert you a car might have been registered in a county that suffered flooding, but it can't tell you if the car was flooded unless it's on record.
• Check the trunk, glove compartment, the dashboard and below the seats for signs of water damage such as silt, mud or rust.
• Examine upholstery and carpeting closely; if it doesn't match the interior or fits loosely, it may have been replaced. Discolored, faded or stained materials could indicate water damage.
• Turn the ignition key and make sure accessory and warning lights and gauges come on and work properly. Make sure the airbag and ABS lights come on.
• Test lights (interior and exterior), windshield wipers, turn signals, radio, heater and air conditioner several times to make sure they work.
• Flex some of the wires beneath the dashboard. Wet wires will become brittle upon drying and may crack.
• Take a deep breath and smell for musty odors from mildew.
• Before you buy any used vehicle: Go to a trusted mechanic for a prepurchase inspection. Always get vehicles checked before handing over any money.