NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Buying a used car is not as easy as just clicking through websites until you find the right one to your liking and at your desired price point.

Ensuring that a previously owned car was not damaged in a car accident or flood means you have to take extra steps that the vehicle is still in tip-top shape and was repaired properly. Following these steps can help you avoid trepidation about costly and frustrating repairs down the road and purchase a reliable and safe vehicle.

Proof of Water Damage...

Identifying previous damages caused by flooding or hail damage can be a tricky issue. Flood damage can be common from storm-ravaged areas, especially coastal areas. During the past five years, several major floods have occurred in various cities throughout the U.S., which “dramatically raises the potential of encountering flood-damaged cars in the used vehicle market,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, the Irvine, Calif. company that provides resale value of vehicles. “Buyers should thoroughly inspect any used vehicle prior to purchase, ideally through a per-purchase inspection (PPI) performed by a trained vehicle expert.”

Start by looking for rust inside the car, especially on the seat rails and other metal parts throughout, said Chris Basso, a used car expert for Carfax, the Centreville, Va.-based company which provides vehicle history reports. Check also for water lines, silt or mud residue either in the trunk or engine and push down on back seats to see if they’re damp or water bubbles up through the cushions, he said.

Other tell-tale signs of minor or serious flooding include fogged headlamps or discolored carpeting, said Ron Montoya, the consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based car shopping website company.

“Be sure to check the car's vehicle history report,” he said. “A flood title specifically alerts future buyers that the car has damage from sitting in water deep enough to fill the engine compartment. Keep in mind the adage, ‘if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.’”

Sit in the vehicle and try out the seat tracks to see if they move or are rusty, said Lisa Copeland, managing partner of Fiat of Austin in Texas. Look under the caps as well. If you find rusted bolts, it is likely the vehicle was flooded previously.

Take a look at the oil because if a car's been submerged in water, it will be a different color, sometimes compared to coffee with milk or a chocolate milkshake, she said.

“The oil may be pale when it should be dark,” Copeland said. “Oil that’s been affected by flooding may also feel sticky to the touch.”

If the car has one, inspect under the spare tire, said Kenny Walters, who owns Kenny’s Lakes Area Automotive in Walled Lake, Mich.

“It’s one of my favorite tricks, because it is usually a place that is forgotten and the damage still shows,” he said. “If a buyer is trying to clean up or even hide the fact that a vehicle has had flood damaged, they may often forget to check.”

While hail damage is not as prevalent, examine the hood and roof for distinct pockmarks and observe to see if the windshield is cracked or if there is a non-factory replacement windshield, Basso said.

Checking the Title...

Since each state has different criteria on what is mentioned in the title, don’t rely on it, because some states may not include flood damage. Be careful of title washing, which is what occurs when a vehicle's title is branded as flood damaged in one state, but transported to another state which could use different criteria for title branding, Brauer said.

Many less reputable sellers might use this underhanded method to pass their cars off to unsuspecting car buyers, he said.

While it may take a couple of hours and includes shelling out a couple hundred dollars, make an appointment to have a mechanic check out the vehicle, because “it’s a worthy investment,” Brauer said.

Determining the Vehicle’s History...

Another way to determine the vehicle’s history is to obtain a report from companies such as AutoCheck and Carfax will often reveal flood damage in a car’s past, but “not always,” he said.

Potential car owners can also check the vehicle identification number or VIN to find the vehicle’s history report, which includes details of any product recalls or insurance claims. You can find this through SaferCar.gov for free.

Consumers can prevent themselves from buying a used car with hidden damage by obtaining a Carfax report, said Yuri Frid, director of operations at Bay Ridge Ford and Jaguar Land Rover Manhattan. Some dealerships, including Bay Ridge Ford, will provide this “assessment on their website for no cost,” he said.

Obtaining a vehicle history can also tell you other valuable details such as whether the car was involved in an accident, the maintenance and other issues such as flood damage, structural damage, title washing and VIN cloning, said Basso. Carfax reports are given to used car buyers for free at 30,000 dealerships throughout the U.S.

“People tell us the most important thing for them when buying a used car is knowing if it was in an accident and service records are number two,” he said. “Carfax reports can include unfixed recalls, number of previous owners, damage repair details, liens and more.”

Where to Purchase Your Next Car...


Conservative car buyers should stick to purchasing certified preowned vehicles from authorized dealers to “completely avoid risk,” said Frid.

“There are extensive requirements for a vehicle to get certified, so buyers can be rest assured about the vehicle's damage history,” he added.

The best bet for a consumer is to shop at reputable dealerships where the vehicle history information is available for all cars, Basso said.

“Don’t buy with your heart,” he said. “If something doesn’t add up or seems too good to be true, it probably is. Walk away.”

Examine a dealership’s reviews on websites such as Cars.com, DealerRater and CarGurus and an e-commerce company’s customer guarantee, said Scott Chesrown, vice president of marketing for Vroom, a N.Y.-based online retailer for used cars. Some companies like Vroom give you a seven-day guarantee and will refund your money and will even pick up the car.

Be wary of dealerships pushing you to add extras such as extended warranties because the majority of owners do not wind up using them, he said.

“Dealerships will often push warranties, because they are profitable for them, but they really only make sense if you plan on having the car for a very long time,” Chesrown said. “The costs of parts and replacements can fluctuate, so the odds of balancing out the cost of your warranty with repairs will go up the longer you have the car.”