Car mold smell traced to carpeting and insulation (C) Daniel Friedman Flooded Car Detection
Advice for used car buyers on how to avoid buying a headache in the form of previously flooded automobiles, trucks, campers
     


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How to identify a car or other vehicle that has been flooded by storm waters, hurricanes, area flooding, or severe leaks. This article warns about the problems likely to ensue if you purchase and intend to drive a vehicle that has been inundated by flood waters. We list key inspection points that can help detect a previously-flooded car.

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Flooded Car Detection Tips for Used Car Buyers
Car mold catastrophe (C) Daniel FriedmanHow to Identify a Car or Other Vehicle that Has Been Flooded, Flood-Damaged, or Soaked

Also see CAR SMELL & ODOR Diagnosis for our complete diagnostic list of odors in cars, and see SMELL PATCH TEST to FIND ODOR SOURCE. For illustrations of a vehicle that was mold-contaminated beyond salvage and a study to identify the types of mold found in vehicles see CAR MOLD CONTAMINATION.

Reporting on the sale of formerly flood-damaged cars to people who may not recognize that a vehicle has been flooded or soaked sufficiently to make the vehicle potentially dangerous or even unsafe to occupy, the New York Times described cars damaged by flooding during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

From that article and other sources, here are some clues that should warn anyone buying a used car that the vehicle may have been flooded: [8][9]

  • Check the vehicle title for flood-car branding. Cars or other vehicles that have been declared a total loss due to flooding bear a title indicating that the vehicle is a "flood car".

    Check the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (vehiclehistory.gov) Also check services such as CarFax (carfax.com) or AutoCHeck (autocheck.com) where that same information may be available. (These data bases are incomplete as not all flooded cars may be reported and registered.)

    Watch out: a car may have been "title washed" by re-registering it in a state that does not carry-over flood-damage branding (such as Colorado or Vermont). A check of the car's title history may show that it was previously owned in a state where flooding occurred; often flooded cars are re-sold in other countries.
  • Check the vehicle identification numbers (VIN) to see that the numbers you can find all match, and that they match the title. VINs can be found inside the vehicle atop the dash at the base of the windshield on the driver's side, on the front of the engine block, at the front of the vehicle frame, usually near the window washer fluid container, inside the driver's side door jamb, beneath the spare tire. (Details about finding the VIN for a vehicle are at several websites including autocheck.com.)

Checking car carpeting for moisture (C) Daniel Friedman

  • Check for residues of mud, sewage, salt, debris in cracks and crevices of the vehicle such as inside hood or trunk stiffening members (through access holes), inside rear-view mirror bases, in the battery tray, underneath glove compartment or door pocket compartment liners, and inside of electrical connector covers.
  • Check for mold odors inside the vehicle. With the vehicle's windows and doors closed (the longer the closed-up interval the better) notice if the interior smells moldy. (Some use the incorrect term "mildew").

    Watch out: Also beware of cars whose interior smells stronly of bleach, perfumes, cleaners, or other chemicals that may have been used in an attempt to cover-up a mold odor. A car that was flooded by storm waters may also smell like sewage; Also be sure to run the vehicle's air conditioning and heating system and sniff for odors. Also see CAR MOLD CONTAMINATION.
  • Check for strong plastic or chemical odors inside the vehicle. In an article series beginning at OZONE MOLD / ODOR TREATMENT WARNINGS we explain that attempts to rid a car, boat, truck, camper or other vehicle of mold odors by over-dosing with ozone can actually oxidize plastics or other materials, causing strong plastic or chemical odors that can be cured only by complete removal of the damaged, oxidized contents.
  • Inspect the upholstery, head liner, carpeting for sagging, puckering;

Checking car carpeting for moisture (C) Daniel Friedman

  • Inspect carpets & headliners or door liners or for traces of mud and rust below floor carpets and padding; take a close whiff of floor carpeting.

    Watch out: all-new carpeting in a car that should show some wear can also be a clue that the vehicle was flooded. Similarly, an all-new-looking headliner or door panels whose color does not exactly match other car interior upholstery orliners may indicate that those components were replaced after a car-flood.
  • Inspect interior trim and plastic components for signs of removal-replacement, such as screws whose head-slots have been gouged or damaged or missing, incomplete trim screws.
  • Look for moisture or condensation in headlights, tail lights, other vehicle lights
  • Look for unusual or non-working electrical components; test every electrical component or light on the vehicle; flood damage often leaves electrical components in disarray, not working, or incompletely or incorrectly replaced by hasty workers; lights that don't work or that are abnormally dim and LCD displays that are incompletre or have odd black or blank spots are examples; look closely at the various fuse containers for signs of discoloration, corrosion, or even for all-new fuses: signs of water intrusion and damage to the electrical system. Try pulling apart a few plug-connectors under the dash or in the engine compartment: inspect the connector for corrosion, dirt, mud, debris.
  • Look for salt corrosion on engine parts under the hood;
  • Check the engine oil for light brown froth after the engine has been run; water left in the crankcase from any source can cause this condition;
Mold smell traced to window leak (C) Daniel Friedman
  • Ask for an independent, expert vehicle inspection either from a mechanic you know and trust, or from companies who provide that service. National as well as local automobile inspection companies offer on-site vehicle inspections that can easily pay for the inspection cost by helping avoid purchas of a car that turns out to be a money pit.
    • Australia: mtavehicleinspections.com.au
    • New Zealand: aa.co.nz
    • UK - car-inspections.co.uk ; dekra-expert.co.uk ; theaa.com
    • USA: automobileinspections.com - $350 ; carchex.com - $120 or more; also look for individual companies operating in your state, such as falconworks.net in southern Arizon

Look for and trace the source of water leaks into the vehicle


It is essential to find and cure the cause of a moldy smell in a vehicle - otherwise the entire diagnostic, cleaning, and testing process will be wasted.

In the moldy car case used as an example in this article, a water leak at the front passenger side windshield pillar was sending water down inside the pillar into the area behind and under the dash board on the passenger side, ultimately onto the passenger side floor.

The car's owners first noticed the leak problem as a wet floor mat. On exploring they found that carpeting below the floor mat was still more wet. This meant trouble.

Moldy smelling carpet padding and sound insulation (C) Daniel FriedmanIn our photo (above left) the author points to the very origin of the roof and windshield pillar leak on the car's passenger side.

The dealer was able to trace the leak to its source, and the leak was repaired. But the moldy smell remained.

At left we are taking a look at the carpet and carpet padding in this same vehicle.

Carpeting, seats, sound insulation, head liners, door liners, or other vehicle materials that have actually been soaked and that smell moldy need to be removed and disposed-of, and the exposed surfaces of the vehicle cleaned using conventional cleaners (soap and water would be fine).

Our photo (above left) shows the primary smell reservoir in this mold-stinky car: the carpet padding and sound insulation material. A topic of considerable discussion was just how much of this padding to remove.

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