The second-hand car market is set to be swamped with flood-damaged cars. The experts warn that they may look undamaged to the untrained eye, but they may be hiding dangerous problems with everything from the brakes to the airbags.
AA Insurance has issued the warning, after an estimated 6,700 cars were damaged by extreme weather over the Christmas break. Insurers appreciate how dangerous these cars are, so will always dispose of them after they have been immersed in water. However, not all car owners will turn to their insurer after a flood - to avoid affecting their no claims bonus or their ongoing premiums. It means that these measures won't stop all flood-damaged cars hitting the second hand market.
Once dried out, it will be difficult to tell that these cars have been affected by the floods. However, Michael Lloyd, director of AA Insurance, listed off a range of potential problems: "Catalytic converter and exhaust system life can be seriously reduced, wheel bearings could seize, brakes can be affected and alternator and starter motors could fail," he says. "In addition, water can seriously affect electrical and electronic systems including the airbags, which might go off unexpectedly – or not deploy when they should."
These are not only very expensive problems to deal with, but they could also prove highly dangerous if something like the brakes or the airbags fail when you need them.
How can you tell?
Lloyd says there are some warning signs to look for when you're inspecting a second hand car. Any signs of dampness should ring alarm bells - this includes the windows being open, a strong smell of air freshener and a lot of condensation on the windows - along with damp upholstery or carpets.
You should check for any water caught inside the lights. The best way is to take someone with you, who can gently rock the car, so you can check there's no water sloshing about in the lights.
You should also take the oil filler cap off and check underneath. If there is a whitish, mayonnaise-like deposit (emulsified oil) under the cap, there is water in the engine.
Start the engine too, and turn the heater blower on to the windscreen. If the glass immediately steams up and takes a long time to clear, there is moisture in the system.
When you start the engine, the system does a self-check. The airbag light should come on and then go off after a few seconds. If it doesn't, there's a fault. This is particularly worrying, because if the air bag electronics have been submerged they may fail when you need them - or even go off unexpectedly when you're on the motorway.
It's also worth checking the paperwork. If the car is within the manufacturer's warranty, call them and check whether it is still active. If the manufacturer knows of any flood damage, it will void the guarantee.
You should also check the car's history - with something like an AA Car Data Check or an HPI Check. These will highlight if the car has been written off by insurance companies and the DVLA. They will also pick up any other issues with the car's history (such as if it has been bought through a hire purchase agreement that hasn't been paid off).