Buyers Guide – How to spot a flood damaged car

How to spot a flood-damaged car

The waters are receding and spring seems to have sprung, but now you need to make sure you don’t get hung out to dry by purchasing one of the thousands of water-damaged vehicles expected to flood the UK’s used car market.

England’s wettest winter since 1766 might finally be on the wane, but car buyers could be feeling its effects for much longer as unscrupulous private sellers swerve big repair bills and deluge the used car market with their waterlogged wheels.

The AA has received more than 4100 callouts for flood-related rescues since the start of December, with many of the cars appearing to display no obvious signs of damage once they’ve dried out. However, appearances are deceptive and these cars are likely to be ticking time bombs.

Insurance companies write-off around 70% of all flood-damaged cars – and they do this for good reason. A flood-hit car is likely to become a financial nightmare with problems such as a damaged catalytic converter, unsafe brakes, faulty electronics and malfunctioning airbags to drain your savings – and pose a risk to life and limb.

How to spot a flood-damaged used car

The best way to avoid being lumbered with a waterlogged liability dripping on your driveway is to buy a car from a reputable and approved used car dealership – such as the Crawley Down Group. Purchasing from such a dealer will leave you fully covered, whereas a private sale will often leave you with no financial redress.

However, if you do choose to brave the classifieds, here are our tips to help avoid buying a flood-damaged car.

Too good to be true: The old adage remains true: if it seems too good to be true – it probably is. Bargains often come at a price – and flood damage will certainly add plenty to your bill.

Location, location, location: Inspect the vehicle’s V5C certificate (also known colloquially as its logbook) before parting with cash. If the seller’s a long way from home then find out why. Check if the vehicle’s based in a flood-hit area by entering the keeper’s address in the Environment Agency’s flood map – which will reveal if it’s from a location prone to flooding.

Write-off: While you’ve got the V5C document in your hand, look closely for notification the car has been recorded as a Category C or D (uneconomic to repair) write-off. This doesn’t make it illegal to sell, but it’s insurance-speak for ‘don’t touch with a barge pole’. Walk away.

Sniff test: Jump in the car and take a long deep sniff. Check for tell-tale stagnant, musty odours – or excessive use of an air freshener, which could be used to mask the unmistakable stench of a water-contaminated motor.

Window to its history: Are the car’s windows wide open as you arrive to view it? This could be innocent, but it might be an attempt to ventilate the interior. Shut them as you look around the car and wait to see if heavy condensation starts to appear. If so, it’s a sure sign of hidden damp.

Carpet test: Feel the carpets and make sure you press down firmly in footwells. Carpets will dry relatively quickly, but the thick underlay and hard-to-get-at soundproofing will retain water for much longer.

Misty windows: Start the engine and blast the windscreen with the fan’s highest setting. If the screen mists up and then takes longer than expected to clear, it’s another sign water’s in the system.

Box clever: Probe the glovebox for signs of mud or silt. Be sure to check other possible mud traps such as the spare wheel housing, too. If a car’s been flooded, there’s likely to be debris in these easily forgotten cubbyholes.

Shine a light: Turn on the car’s headlights and look for dull, damaged silver reflectors and misting on the lenses. It’s a clear clue the car’s been doing some serious paddling.

Oil check: Open the bonnet and remove the oil filler cap. Look for signs of creamy, mayonnaise-like deposits on the base of the cap or around the filler hole. This suggests serious water contamination from flooding or an expensive head gasket failure.

Warning lights: Turn on the car’s ignition and ensure the dashboard airbag warning light illuminates for a few seconds and then goes out. Water damage to the airbag can result in spontaneous inflation while you’re driving. This is a risk to life.

Ignition: Start the engine and check electrical items – such as windows, wipers, stereo and integrated computers – are working as expected. Any hint to a glitch needs a good explanation.

4X4s: The AA alone has recovered more than 4000 submerged vehicles and it notes a large proportion of these were 4x4s. Just because it’s a hefty off-roader, it doesn’t mean that bargain all-wheel-drive motor isn’t a waterlogged lemon.

And finally… Go amphibious

It seems extreme weather could be a regular occurrence in the UK, so why not future-proof your motoring with one of these handy amphibious vehicles?

Amphicar: This German-designed car/boat was launched in the ’60s and used a Triumph Herald engine to give a 65mph top speed on land and 6mph in the water.
How much: From £20,000 used


The Amphicar
Image Credit: WikiPedia

Dutton Surf: Built on the south coast in Worthing, the Surf used a Suzuki four-wheel-drive powertrain, while a jet drive takes care of steering and propulsion in the wet stuff – giving a top speed of 6.3mph.

How much: From £7,500 used

Dutton Surf

Dutton Surf
Image Credit: TimDutton

Gibbs Aquada: The sports car among amphibians, the Aquada was launched in 2003, and was capable of 100mph on land, 30mph on water and came with a price tag of £150,000.

How much: £150,000 when new

Gibbs Aquada

Gibbs Aquada
Image Credit: Wikipedia


James Bond’s 007 Lotus Esprit Submarine Car: The world’s most famous amphibious car starred alongside Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me, and was a fully functional submarine. Sadly – while it was great in the water – the version used in the film didn’t have any wheels.

How much: The Lotus submarine was sold at auction in 2013 for £616,000.

Lotus submarine

Lotus Esprit ‘submarine car’ from The Spy Who Loved Me
Image Credit: Wikipedia


Avoid the risk and buy your used car with confidence at the Crawley Down Group.

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