How to spot a damaged vehicle

Make sure you don’t get any surprises later on!

In New Zealand, it is still possible for registered motor vehicle dealers to import damaged vehicles to sell. They are legally required to disclose any damage on the Consumer Information Notice, however they are not legally required to provide the buyer with all the information on any repair work that was carried out to bring the vehicle up to NZTA standards to allow for importation.

There is no legal requirement for a private seller to disclose any information. The buyer should do their homework and use means to check on the vehicles history. The best means is getting a pre purchase vehicle inspection done with a reputable business.

Damage could be crash damage, water damage or other types of damage. Sometimes damage may have been repaired to a very high level of quality and you may have years of enjoyment from the vehicle without further repercussions. Other times, no amount of repairs is going to stop ongoing issues popping up at later dates and costing you lots of money.

A pre purchase vehicle inspection will often help you pick up on signs that the vehicle may have had some form of damage in the past, so that you can then ask the right questions of the seller and make an informed decision.


Make no mistake, any kind of water getting into places it wasn’t meant to be is a bad thing where modern cars are concerned.

Mechanical and electrical parts are both affected adversely by water and even though problems may not be immediately apparent, part failure could develop at any time. Rust and corrosion may not be readily apparent but, as time goes by, rust and corrosion on bolts and electrical connectors can get worse, even after the water has dried up. Dampness under the carpets and in the seats can cause dangerous molds or bacteria to take root and are nearly impossible to fully remove. Even if the car wasn’t fully submerged, it doesn’t take much for insurance companies to write the car off as unrepairable.

Unless you have experience dealing with problems that arise from damage caused by water, it’s best to avoid flood-damaged vehicles.


The very best way to identify a water-damaged vehicle is to rely on an pre purchase vehicle inspection, completed by an inspector with training.

However, if you’re only casually interested, and you have the time and ability to look at the vehicle yourself, here are some things you’ll want to look for when investigating a vehicle for flood damage.

  • Identifiers of water stains are a dead give-away. Look for dried rings or “tide” lines where water may have evaporated from. Evaporation of water or the steps taken to clean it can result in unnatural fading that can betray a history of water damage.
  • Mud or mold under the carpets or boot floor is a bad sign, and dampness not attributed to a leaking air conditioning pan is as well.
  • Look for evidence of water in places water would not normally reach. If the vehicle was submerged, water or silt may have collected on upper surfaces that shouldn’t ever be exposed to these elements. Check areas in the engine bay, where cleaning up every part that can collect debris is difficult and time-consuming.
  • Get under the vehicle and see if there is debris lodged in places it would be difficult to reach without the vehicle being submerged. Mud, sand, leaves, and other types of debris can collect almost anywhere when the vehicle is underwater.
  • When looking at electrical components, watch for debris behind wiring or rusted connectors. Often wires that suffered flood damage will be dry and brittle as a result of water evaporation.
  • If the carpet has been recently cleaned, or the seats completely reupholstered, it could be a sign of flood damage. Be especially wary if these upgrades are not characteristic of how the rest of the car has been maintained.

Your best protection against spotting a damaged vehicle is to get a pre purchase vehicle inspection completed by a reputable company.