Canadians are no strangers to the threat of floods. With over 8500 rivers, heavy snowmelt in summers, and the threat of hurricanes on the Atlantic coast, destructive floods are all too frequent.

As a result, flood-damaged vehicles are a common fixture on the used car market landscape in the country. A particularly bad hurricane season in the US can also bring an influx of such cars across the 49th parallel. 

Even if you are an accomplished mechanic, repairing a car with extensive water damage can be an expensive proposition. So it is imperative that used car buyers in Canada learn how to spot a flood-damaged vehicle.

Most major Canadian cities lie on the shores of major rivers and are vulnerable to floods, like Edmonton here next to the Saskatchewan River.
Most major Canadian cities lie on the shores of major rivers and are vulnerable to floods, like Edmonton here next to the Saskatchewan River.

What constitutes a “flood-damaged vehicle”?

Vehicles have an uneasy relationship with water. Even off-road vehicles can leave you high and dry out in the wilds if you rashly tackle a water crossing. So you can imagine the impact a heavy flood can have on regular cars, vans, and trucks. 

Vehicles that get caught in a flood can suffer extensive damages due to submersion. And it doesn’t take full submersion to cause catastrophic damage. In insurance circles, getting water above the floorboards is enough for a vehicle to get written off with a “flood” or “salvage” title.

Why is flood damage a serious issue for vehicles?

Modern vehicles are made of many complex systems involving metal, mechanical systems, hydraulics, electricals, advanced electronics, and more. All of these have one thing in common – they can all be damaged by water. 

Corrosion is one of the most severe and long-standing effects of flooding. It can spread deep inside the vehicle, taking months or even years. Unless it is in an exposed part of the vehicle, spotting corrosion can be difficult as well.

It can severely affect the safety of a vehicle and its occupants. Corroded panels can affect the structural integrity of a vehicle, making it more prone to damage in collisions. Rusted parts can affect the proper functioning of brakes and airbags as well. The longevity of the engine will also be severely affected by water damage.

Even a few inches of standing water can cause severe damage to cars during floods.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Even a few inches of standing water can cause severe damage to cars during floods.

What does the law say about flood-damaged vehicles in Canada?

Since water damage can drastically increase the risk of accidents and collisions in the long term, Canada has very strict laws on vehicles affected by floods. While it may vary slightly from province to province, the basic features are the same. 

Flooded vehicles in which the water level reaches the dash is usually written off as a total loss by insurers in Canada. Such cars get an “irreparable” title and can only be sold for parts at auction. 

Those that suffered less damage/flooding may end up with a “salvage” title. But in most cases, flood damage automatically results in the vehicle getting barred from use on Canadian roads. 
Cars with a “salvage” title can get the nod from authorities for use on roads, but only after adequate repairs and renovation. You will have to pass stringent technical appraisals and mechanical inspections from your local authorized centres.

Destructive Atlantic hurricanes like Igor often increase the number of flood-damaged cars in the market.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Destructive Atlantic hurricanes like Igor often increase the number of flood-damaged cars in the market.

How to identify flood-damaged vehicles – the telltale signs

Due to the stringent rules in Canada, many flood-damaged vehicles are sold on the sly. Such cars are spruced up to hide the visible effects of water damage. The only way to protect yourself from loss is to do a thorough inspection of all used vehicles before purchase, preferably with the help of an expert. 

There are several signs that can point towards water damage in a vehicle. Musty or mouldy odours from the carpets, seats, and the interiors, in general, are a dead giveaway. On the flipside, overuse of air fresheners, cleaners and scents may be a sign of the seller trying to mask the bad odours. 

In vehicles that have not been restored by experts, you can often spot signs of water lines, mud and trash particles, silt, and rust. But if it has been dealt with by pros, look for things like brand new seats and carpets that look out of place in an otherwise old car. 

Always check the electrical systems – the dash lights, signals, AC, wipers, radio and others. Also, check the dashboard for any condensation inside the instrument clusters and dials. You should also do a thorough check of all nooks and corners, both inside and outside, for signs of rust, mud, and salt stains.

Rust is a sure sign of water damage, but it can be easily hidden behind a fresh coat of paint.
Source: Zepps Project at Pexels
Rust is a sure sign of water damage, but it can be easily hidden behind a fresh coat of paint.

Final Thoughts on Buying Flood-Damaged Vehicles

Damage in a flood does not automatically transform a car into a pile of junk. A lot depends on the intensity and duration of flooding. But in most instances, full or partial submersion is like a death sentence for a vehicle. 

Buying a flood-damaged vehicle for parts is not a bad idea. But if it is for driving, the decision must be taken only after careful consideration. A flood salvage title means that you can legally make a vehicle road-worthy, but the costs can be high. 

Consult a mechanic on these matters if you don’t have any expertise in the area. Salvage vehicles are attractive because of their low price. But due to the long term effects of water damage, the cost savings may be minimal to non-existent in the case of flooded vehicles.