How to Check for Water Damage in a Car

When you are looking for a used vehicle, it is wise to stay away from vehicles that have had water damage. Water is an enemy of cars in many ways, causing damage such as:

  • Electrical problems
  • Engine damage
  • Mold and mildew that is difficult to remove
  • Premature corrosion and rust
  • Seizing mechanical parts like wheel bearings

When a vehicle has been in a flood, it is usually declared a total loss by its insurance company. That’s because flooded vehicles are expensive to repair - water damage can dramatically affect a vehicle’s life expectancy and reliability. Given a choice, a buyer should always choose a vehicle that hasn’t experienced water damage.

It’s possible when you are looking at a used car that you haven’t been informed by the seller that the vehicle was water damaged. It may be because:

  • The seller is not the original owner and doesn’t know about it themselves
  • The seller is hiding that they are aware of water damage
  • The vehicle wasn’t insured and the water damage wasn’t disclosed after repairs

Whatever the case, you can check several things to help you determine if a vehicle has water damage before you buy it.

Method 1 of 5: Perform a VIN check

Obtain a detailed vehicle history report from a reputable source to check for any title issues relating to water damage.

vin number check

Step 1: Find the VIN. Obtain the vehicle’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN.

The VIN number is a unique 17-digit number that is assigned specifically to each vehicle.

It is located on the driver’s side dashboard, visible through the windshield.

vin in driver side door jamb

You can also find it on the driver’s door pillar, and on many other body panels.

Another place to look for your VIN is on the car’s title and registration documentation.

Step 2: Find a reputable vehicle history report website. CARFAX, CarProof, and AutoCheck are great websites for checking your VIN.

Step 3: Pay for the report. An individual vehicle history report can vary slightly in price, depending on which site you select.

Enter your credit card information, or you may be able to use PayPal in some cases.

Step 4: Read through the VIN check report.

vin report showing salvaged vehicle * Look for instances of water-related damage, the term “flood,” or a title status that refers to “salvage,” “rebuilt,” or “total loss.”

If the VIN report doesn’t show any reference to water damage, it’s unlikely the vehicle was involved in extensive water damage.

  • Warning: If a vehicle was not insured when it experienced water damage or flooding, it may have been repaired by the owner without the title being affected at all. A VIN report may not catch every instance of water damage but is generally quite helpful in weeding out water-damaged vehicles.

Method 2 of 5: Check for premature corrosion

Vehicles that have been submerged or water damaged will typically have more corrosion, or corrosion in atypical places, compared to vehicles in normal conditions.

car wire corrosion

Step 1: Inspect the electrical components for corrosion. Corrosion on electrical components usually presents itself as white, green, or bluish fuzz on connectors and electrical parts.

Step 2: Check for corrosion in other parts of the car. Look at the fuse block under the hood, major electrical connectors, chassis ground cables, and computer modules.

  • Tip: Corrosion on the battery terminals is not a good indicator of water damage. This type of corrosion and buildup can develop under normal conditions.

If there is corrosion on electrical components, it’s possible the car was involved in water damage.

Minor corrosion may develop over time, so consider the vehicle’s age when determining if the corrosion is excessive.

image showing rust inside of the door jamb

Step 3: Check for sheet metal rust. Interior parts that are rusty are telltale signs of water damage.

Step 4: Check less obvious spots. Look at the underside of the hood, the trunk lid, in the spare tire well, and under the seats for rusting metal parts.

Method 3 of 5: Check for electrical issues

Water and electricity don’t mix, so if a car has experienced water damage there will usually be electrical repairs required. Some electrical problems don’t manifest until later or the issues can be intermittent.

Step 1: Check each electrical system’s operation. When you are looking at a used car for sale, make sure the system is operational by turning it on and off multiple times.

car lights one on one off

Step 2: Check the lights. Turn on each light including the turn signals, headlights, brake lights, reverse lights, and interior lights to make sure they work.

It’s possible for a bulb to be burnt out but if the a system doesn’t operate, there may be a water damage situation.

For example, if the left turn signal illuminates but doesn’t flash when it is turned on, there could be an issue related to water.

car instrument cluster with indicator lights on

Step 3: Examine the instrument cluster for problems. If there are malfunction indicators lit such as the engine light or ABS light, there may be an issue.

Step 4: Check the power controls. Roll down each power window and check that each power door lock works as it should.

Step 5: Diagnose any problems. If electrical problems come up, have the seller get them diagnosed before you complete the purchase.

They may or may not be water-related but you’ll at least have an idea of what repairs are required.

  • Warning: If the seller is unwilling to have problems looked at, they may be trying to cover up a known problem.

Method 4 of 5: Check the upholstery for water staining

car upholstery showing water stains

Step 1: Check the seats. Look very carefully at the seats for abnormal water stains.

A small water ring is typically just a spill but extensive water stains may be a larger issue.

Water staining on multiple seats can indicate abnormal water damage.

car showing water lines

Step 2: Look for water lines. Look for lines or stains on the door panels.

The fabric on the door panel may swell, indicating a water line.Look for similar damage on multiple panels to be sure of water damage.

Step 3: Check the carpets. Look at the carpet in the car for water exposure.

It’s normal for water or snow to get on the carpets in small amounts, but if there are water stains higher up in the footwells, under the seats, or on the carpeted sills near the doors, there may have been water damage.

There may be silt or dirt from the water still in the carpets as well.

Step 4: Check the headliner. In extreme cases where the car was submerged, the headliner can get wet.

Check for swelling around the edges of the headliner or around the dome light.

fabric drooping from headliner

Look for the fabric separating and drooping from the foam on the headliner.

Method 5 of 5: Check the car’s mechanical operation

person holding cap with milky fluid on it

Step 1: Check all the fluid conditions. If there was water in the engine, transmission, or differentials, it can turn the oil a milky color and consistency.

Step 2: Perform a test drive. If the engine is running rough or the transmission isn’t shifting well, there may have been water in them at some point. While it's not necessarily water damage that's causing this, it's always best to get engine or transmission issues diagnosed before purchasing.

Set the cruise control when you test drive the car.

Listen for abnormal operating noises.

A squeal or grinding noise from the brakes may be nothing to worry about but when combined with other symptoms it can reinforce a suspicion of water damage.

As you work your way through these steps pay close attention to anything unusual or out of the ordinary. If you find anything else amiss with the car you’re checking for water damage be sure to make a note of it so you can factor it into your buying decisions. If you prefer to have a professional check over a potential purchase, contact one of YourMechanic’s certified mechanics to complete a pre-purchase inspection to thoroughly check the car you’re interested in.


Next Step

Schedule Pre-purchase Car Inspection

The most popular service booked by readers of this article is Pre-purchase Car Inspection. YourMechanic’s technicians bring the dealership to you by performing this job at your home or office 7-days a week between 7AM-9PM. We currently cover over 2,000 cities and have 100k+ 5-star reviews... LEARN MORE

SEE PRICING & SCHEDULING

The statements expressed above are only for informational purposes and should be independently verified. Please see our terms of service for more details

Recent Pre-purchase Car Inspection reviews

Excellent Rating

(5,189)

Rating Summary
4,847
184
37
38
83
4,847
184
37
38
83

Attila

19 years of experience
906 reviews
Attila
19 years of experience
Cadillac SRX V6-3.6L - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Edison, New Jersey
Attila was great! Very knowledgeable and actually detected a fault during a pre-purchase inspection that would have cost me later.
Lexus ES350 - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Fords, New Jersey
He is very good—offered all the significant details we needed from the inspection. Helped us figure out what needed to be fixed.

Shawn

12 years of experience
285 reviews
Shawn
12 years of experience
Chevrolet Impala V6-3.6L - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Lansdale, Pennsylvania
Shawn was prompt, professional, and delivered the promised service as expected. This was a used vehicle pre-purchase inspection. Shawn also had to drive to multiple locations to perform the inspection, as the address listed that I provided him with was not accurate, but he still made it to the correct location within his time window and completed the inspection.
Toyota Sequoia - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Akron, Pennsylvania
Shawn was very prompt in communicating with me and was good at helping me decide whether to purchase a used car. He help me avoid a car with a repaired rusted frame that could be a danger to my family's safety since we were planning on using the car to tow a travel trailer!

Luis

18 years of experience
320 reviews
Luis
18 years of experience
Honda HR-V L4-1.8L - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Warren, New Jersey
Luis was great. He showed up on time, acted professionally, and gave me confidence with a pre-purchase car inspection.
Acura RDX - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - South Hackensack, New Jersey
Luis did a thorough pre-purchase inspection for me, and found several major issues that made me pass on buying the car. Had I purchased the car, I almost certainly would have ended up paying thousands in repairs down the road. Thanks Luis!

Robert

20 years of experience
1089 reviews
Robert
20 years of experience
Hyundai Elantra L4-2.0L - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Englewood, Colorado
He did a pre-purchase inspection for me. He was knowledgeable and fast, and knew what he was looking for. I really appreciate all the pictures and documentation he took of the state of the car before purchase. He noted potential issues with the car that I wouldn't have been able to notice. Would recommend.
GMC Savana 1500 - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Golden, Colorado
I trust Robert. He gave me a list and we will take care of it the week of June 29. I will know then that my vehicle is ready for the winter and is safe to drive. I look forward to getting things ready for another winter of careful driving.

Need Help With Your Car?

Our certified mobile mechanics make house calls in over 2,000 U.S. cities. Fast, free online quotes for your car repair.

GET A QUOTE

Related articles

How to Conduct a Pre-Purchase Inspection on a Used Car
It can be hard to know if buying a used car is a good deal. Inspect the body, tires, engine, and suspension to check if a used car is in good shape.
How to Finance a Used Car
You’ve You’ve saved some money to purchase a used car. And while you could use those funds to pay cash for a vehicle from an individual, you can also benefit from having money in hand when visiting a dealership. The...
The 5 Safest Used Cars You Can Buy For Under $20,000
The Subaru Legacy, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Chevy Volt, and the Volvo XC60 are five of the overall safest used cars you can buy for under $20,000.

Related questions

ESC Off light came on and continued showing
This light is indicating a logged fault in the stability control system on your 2009 Kia Rondo. Common issues are generally wheel speed sensor failures (https://www.yourmechanic.com/services/wheel-speed-sensor-replacement), but this can be determined by having the faults read out of the ESC...
there is sediment and rust on the dipstick.
The oil dipstick may get moisture rust damage on them which is normal. Make sure you check the engine by opening the oil cap and looking inside. If you see the same rust and milky looking oil, then there was...
2013 BMW 528i Maintenance Costs
This is a great car that performs well and runs very efficiently. As to the average annual maintenance costs per year, this may be tough to say as everyone's driving habits are different which require different maintenance intervals. As for...

How can we help?

Our service team is available 7 days a week, Monday - Friday from 6 AM to 5 PM PST, Saturday - Sunday 7 AM - 4 PM PST.

1 (855) 347-2779 · hi@yourmechanic.com