I’ve been in the process (about 2 years) of ‘any day now I’ll get a new car’ – but have struggled to find one that I actually like. There’s too many cars I just don’t get that feeling of ‘it’s the one’ – and I’ve driven everything from Subarus, BMW’s, Lexus, to Nissan, Hondas and Mazdas. However, I’m starting to narrow my focus to some Mazda 6’s. I just happen to find one that matched a lot of what I was looking for, so I took it for a drive and had a mechanic check it out.
Well, let me just say that before I dropped it off – there were a few things that were bothering me mechanically about the car – but I decided to just let the mechanic check it out for me. Needless to say, when I got back, we discovered that it had likely been flooded. There was a water line about half-way up in the trunk. The carpet under the rear floor mats was wet underneath (had to pull up part of the carpet to feel it) but they had dried out the front carpet areas to where they weren’t wet at all – however it was obvious they had pulled the carpet up and put it back (they didn’t even snap all the molding back). They did a rotten job trying to hide the damage. They didn’t even try to dry under the back. They just threw away the trunk carpet all together.
But the shocking part was how non-visible the damage was. In the trunk, the water line was just a little coating of white pills – kind of the like little balls of white lint you get on a coat. Unfortunately, those white lint balls were really the glue that had leeched through. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any brown mud or rust on bolt heads. I looked inside frame mounts and didn’t see any other obvious water or rust marks. If they had done a better job of cleaning the car up (or putting it back together) – it would have been very hard to spot.
So, here’s some tips to look for in checking a car out for water damage:
- They’ve tossed all the original floor mats and/or the trunk floor liner
- Open the spare tire well – mine had little puddles of water in it because the holes that normally let the water out were plugged (probably from being submerged).
- check under ALL the carpets – front and back. This requires taking some of the plastic floor and kick-well plastics out – but do it. My fronts were perfectly dry, but the rears were wet.
- The front carpets clearly had ‘air bubbles’ under them. In other words, the carpet had been lifted up, then put back, but it was no longer sticking to the metal floor – so it slide around and had areas that popped up.
- Use your nose – but it is subtle. I smelled perfumes but underneath that there was still a faint wet/musty smell. Put the windows up and blast the heat for a better effect.
- See if the plastic molding around the door – especially the lower moldings – have recently been removed. Look for little pry marks or broken/missing plastic fasteners. The ones on this weren’t even put back all the way. Clearly they’d been mucking around down there.
- Do a VIN check – and see if it came from a recently flooded area – but don’t trust it to say flooded. Here’s the report I got for the car from experian/carfax. You’ll note there is no mention of flood damage and it still qualified for their title protection. Renton is where I-5 flooded shut about 2 months ago.
- Check the electrical plugs under the dash or under the car in low-hanging areas. Get the big plugs with multiple wires or thick connectors and unplug them. If it’s sat in water, the water will have seeped in and gotten stuck. They can’t have cleaned them all out. Water in the plugs = totally sat in water for some period.
- The transmission fluid was black. Like used motor oil. This alone is enough to make one run. Check the oil for foam or discolorations too. But don’t count on it – an oil change and transmission change would have made this not visible.
- Check the brake pads and brake assembly out. That’s raw metal. If theres lots of rust that looks unusual, the brakes squeak a lot or feel odd, odds are good it sat in water. You might even get lucky and see a water line on parts of the rotor if it hasn’t been test driven much.
- Check for ticks or weird feel from the steering column. When turning from a start, I could feel a tick in the steering column. This might just mean bad CV joints if the mileage is high enough, or it could mean the CV joints sat in water and are starting to rust. Either way CV joints = $500.
- Don’t trust looking for rust around bolts or mud lines. I didn’t see ANY. I looked inside frame plugs too – no dice.
My dad worked insurance for many years – and he confirmed it can be very hard to spot a flooded car if they did a good job cleaning it up. These guys did such a poor job trying to hide the damage that it was pretty obvious. If they’d changed the tranny fluid and really dried it out (front and back), and put the plastics back right – it would have been very unlikely to have been spotted. ALWAYS find a mechanic who is good to check these things out. My $80 saved me thousands. Always always always get an inspection. They cost under $100 and they usually can spot at least $100 worth of stuff that you can use to deduct from the price of the car – making the inspection almost free.
If you suspect it’s been in water – RUN, don’t walk. Don’t even both no matter how much you like the car. The mechanic said this would be the likely progression of woes from this car: you’d do the transmission oil but it would likely start failing within a year. Odds are good the electronics would start dying within 6 months – lights stop working, fuel pumps, anything electrical would die or go wonky as the wires and electronics rusted and shorted. The CV joints/axles would likely need replacing within about 6 months, and probably the calipers and brake systems too. If you’re lucky, water didn’t get into the oil pan. If unlucky – get ready for an engine rebuild. In other words – this thing would have totally self destructed.
This car was being pushed by Nissan of the Eastside in Belleview, WA. These guys had clearly seen the damage and tried to cover it up. When I got back – it was pretty clear they knew what I’d found. I told them I was going to get a thorough inspection of the thing, and they still insisted it was fine. Total sleazes from a very up-scale place. It just goes to show how awful car dealerships are – no matter how high-end they look.