Buying a car that has been under water – literally, not in the sense that its previous owner had it repo’d because he owed more in remaining monthly payments than the car was worth and so stopped making payments – is never a good idea.
It is a much worse idea than it once was, however.
A case-in-point will make the point.
A friend’s son inherited his dad’s old truck. One day, he forgot to set the parking brake and left it parked – or so he assumed – at the top of a hill. It went down the hill, into my friend’s cattle pond. It was under water, literally – physically – for a day or so, until my friend was able to pull his son’s truck out of the pond with his front-end loader.
If it hadn’t been an old truck, it would have been. But because it was an old truck, all it took to get it running again was drying it out – and draining the engine (and transmission) and refilling them with fresh oil (and lube), clearing the moisture out of the distributor (WD-40 works well; the “WD” stands for water displacement) and some jumper cables.
Back in business!
If it had been a newer truck – one with a computer rather than a carburetor – it would not have been so simple. It might not have been possible. Well, it probably wouldn’t have been worth it.
An under-water electronic car is apt to have endless electronic problems as a result of having been under water. It may not start or run normally – even after it has been dried out – because the water may have damaged electronics such as the computer that runs the fuel injection (as well as the ignition) and the many electronic sensors the computer depends upon to start the engine and keep it running normally.
But it’s much more than just that.
The heater controls in my friend’s son’s old truck consist of levers connected to cables. These open and close the airflow doors mechanically, allowing heat (and how much) to enter the truck’s cab.
Almost all late-model cars have electronic – that word, again! – climate controls. When you push a button – or even when you rotate a knob – a signal conveying what you want, in terms of hot and cold (and how much, of each) is sent to electronics that actuate the mechanisms. Water doesn’t hurt cables, if it’s dried out of them and the cables are lubed to keep them moving and from rusting.
Electronics, on the other hand.
That goes for the stereo, too. And – in many late-model cars and almost every new (2023) car, the LCD touchscreen. Give it a bath and it will probably never work right again. Ask anyone who’s dropped their smartphone in a pond.
Remember that in many cars that have these touchscreens, that is how you control most things. No touchscreen – no more controls.
There are also body control modules, which are min-computers that control things like the action of the power windows, which were once controlled with simple switches and simple wiring. The latter could be dried out and even replaced, if need be, for a sum that made it worth replacing them, if necessary.
A half dozen (or more) body control modules – and a wiring harness as thickly bundled and complex in its windings as the one in the Apollo lunar landers – not so much.
The cost to replaced all of this stuff – or even some of it – is so high relative to the worth of the car (or truck) after it has gone for a swim – or even a dip – that it isn’t worth paying it. That is is why insurance adjusters will almost always total a car (or truck) that has gone for a swim.
And that is why it’s really important to be sure you don’t buy a modern car (or truck) that’s been under water, even just a little bit. Water high enough to breach the door seals – or even partially immerse the car (or truck’s) underthings can be enough to ruin the car. Especially electric cars – which may become dangerous cars, if the battery has been compromised.
Trucks (and some SUV) are less vulnerable to water damage because they have more ground clearance and may also have more shielding to prevent water from getting at electronics that don’t do well when the get wet. But even they are vulnerable to catastrophic damage if the water gets too high – or they are driven through water that’s too high.
Every time this happens en masse – as in the wake of a flood, such as the recent one up in New England – cars and trucks that did go for a swim (or just a dip) and got totaled by their owner’s insurance company – are washed through the system, with “clean” titles that make it appear they’re just another used car (or truck). It’s easy to do because it’s easy to dry out a vehicle that went for a swim – which is why it’s so important to look for signs that it did.
Running a Carfax or similar vehicle history report may reveal title irregularities but it is not a guarantee. Neither is anything else in life – other than having to deal with the government’s hands in your pockets and its nose in your business. However, you can greatly increase the odds you won’t take a bath by using your own eyes – to look for signs that the vehicle you’re looking at might have been under water.
It goes without saying that buying a vehicle sight unseen (as online) is risky business – to cage a line from a movie about a Porsche that went for a swim. You can’t smell moldy carpets from two states away and it’s harder to see water marks on door panels when you’re not eyeballing them up close, yourself.
If you’re looking at the vehicle in person, you can pop the hood and look for signs of rust where it ought not to be, such as on metal parts that ordinarily don’t get wet such as the brake master cylinder and the lines feeding into it. Also the underside of the hood. If the car has been “detailed” extra due-diligence is called for, especially as regards the engine compartment. High pressure water used to clean the engine can have the same effects, by the way, as taking the car for a swim. A dirty engine is preferable to one that’s sparkling clean but is constantly “throwing codes” – and lighting up the “service needed” icon in the dashboard – because someone used a high-pressure sprayer to clean it.
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