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you & your car

From left to right: high water at the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier in Oosterschelde, the Netherlands; the giant Maeslant Barrier that guards entrance toRotterdam, the largest port in Europe; atow truck driver floats a car out of the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto during the floods of 2013.Bas Czerwinski/AFP/Getty Images; Rob Doolaard/EPA; frank gunn/the canadian press<252,1>

A Globe Driver reader sent this question, "How do I tell if the vehicle I am about to buy has sustained water damage?"

First, new cars on a lot: The manufacturer is responsible for vehicles to the point of delivery and thereafter under warranty. New vehicles severely damaged in a flood are destroyed. If the damage is minimal, the affected parts are examined and repaired or replaced and covered by the new vehicle warranty.

All other vehicles heavily damaged by water fall into a variety of categories. They range from being destroyed under coverage by an insurance policy, to being foisted on an unsuspecting buyer.

Modern vehicles contain a massive amount of wiring, sensors, control units and other electronics. Most are protected from contact with the elements, but not from being submerged. Here's how to tell if the vehicle, or major parts of it, have been submerged or at least driven through deep water.


  • Does it smell musty?
  • Are there any signs of discoloration or new coverings or a “dye job”. If possible pull up the carpets and have a look.
  • Pull all seat belts to their maximum extension and look for signs of water damage.
  • Beneath the seats, look at the tracks the seats slide on and the springs, fasteners etc. in that area. Do the seats move fore/aft readily?
  • Obviously, water marks inside the gauges are not a good sign.
  • Electrical - Check that the wipers, lights and all other controls, switches and systems work properly.
  • Pressboard panels - the painted cardboard-like material often used for glove boxes and panel dividers react instantly to moisture and never resume their original shape.

High water marks

  • Look closely at the engine compartment for signs water has been present. This area is particularly crowded and thus difficult to clean and disguise.
  • The radiator is a good source of information – by its very design it cannot be easily cleaned.
  • Lift the mats in the trunk/cargo area, look as deeply as possible, beneath the spare tire for example for signs of water.

Door hinges

Any sign of rust? These are hard to clean without removing the entire door and the hinges themselves.

Exhaust system

If a vehicle has been submerged, water may have entered the exhaust system through the open tail pipe(s). If it has reached the catalytic converter, which operates at extreme temperatures, that will require an expensive replacement. Have a technician check the "cat" if you have any reason to think the exhaust has been under water.


As above, look for signs of water around the compartment. Pull the dipstick and look for any sign of moisture or discoloured oil, likely a coffee-like colour if water has been present. Check the air and cabin filters for water stains.

While some of these steps may appear to be a bit "over-the-top", the difference between a clean and valuable vehicle and worthless scrap can be measured by only a few centimetres of water.

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