Water damaged vehicles – what you need to know

Weather events causing flooding and landslips also increase the risk of water damage to vehicles. Water damage can adversely affect a vehicle’s safety system components, so it’s important to be aware of the safety risks. Keep reading to find out how you can help to ensure impacted vehicles are safe to drive.

The risks of water damage to a vehicle

The biggest risk is to a vehicle’s electronic safety systems and the mechanics. Even if the water level only reaches the bottom of the door frame (the sill line), any water in the vehicle passenger compartments can cause corrosion of electronic components over time, increasing the chances of early failure.

Plug-in electric and hybrid electric vehicles are at greater risk. Even if there is no water in the passenger compartment, high voltage wiring and in some instances batteries, are mounted on the outer body which may take the brunt of the damage.

Be ready

If wet weather is due, you may want to move your vehicle away from areas prone to flooding – if that’s an option for you. If you can, avoid driving through flooded areas.

What to do if your vehicle has been water damaged

Simply drying out your vehicle is not sufficient from a safety perspective given the likelihood of damage to the vehicle’s electronic and mechanical safety systems. We strongly encourage people not to attempt to fix vehicles themselves or to drive or on-sell a water damaged vehicle.

Do not continue to use the vehicle, whether it’s driving it yourself or selling it to someone else as it potentially places people at risk on New Zealand roads.

Contact your insurer

If your vehicle is insured, you should work through your insurance company. They’ll arrange for your vehicle to be assessed and will work with you to repair the vehicle or write it off and settle your claim.

If the vehicle is written-off, it is deregistered and the Motor Vehicle Register is updated with the reason for the write-off. Usually, insurers sell these vehicles through damaged vehicle auctions.

More information is on the Insurance Council of New Zealand website(external link)

If your vehicle is not insured

If your vehicle is not insured, we recommend you have a suitably qualified automotive technician complete a thorough inspection of the vehicle. They may recommend you take it to a specialist repair certifier.

If you have an electric or hybrid electric vehicle, you should take it to the vehicle manufacturer/dealership for inspection, or to an electric vehicle repair specialist.

Remember to get a quote for any work or inspection so you can make an informed decision on cost of repair versus the value of the vehicle.

If you have your vehicle repaired, it must be repaired safely by a reputable repairer. They'll ensure repairs are carried out to the manufacturer's repair specifications.  

RepairCert NZ have more guidance on how to deal with water damaged vehicles(external link)

If you decide not to repair the vehicle

You should take the vehicle to a reputable panel beater or seller of car parts and disclose the water damage so they dispose of the vehicle correctly.

You’ll need to:

  1. Cancel the vehicle’s registration at one of our agents, then
  2. Let us know you've disposed of the vehicle online.

Cancelling your registration

Let us know you've disposed of a vehicle(external link)

What to do if your vehicle is water damaged – infographic [PDF, 228 KB]

Notify us of water damaged vehicles so we can note it in our system and add it to our publicly available list, email us at frr@nzta.govt.nz

Avoid buying a water damaged vehicle

To have consumer protection when buying a vehicle, we recommend you go to a licensed or registered vehicle dealer, or organisation that is covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act. Regardless of who is selling a vehicle, people should consider having a professional independent pre-purchase inspection done and highlight that you are concerned about water damage. While not guaranteed that all damage will be identified, this is still your best option to have the vehicle checked before you purchase.

Here are signs you can also look for:

  • a musty smell inside the passenger compartment
  • wet or damp carpet
  • excessive condensation on the inside of glazing and lighting lenses
  • mould or mildew on interior panels, fabrics, and seatbelt webbing
  • water line marks on door panels and other interior components
  • silt in the crevices of interior panels such as speaker covers and air conditioning air vents
  • corrosion on seat base support springs
  • irregular noises or faults in electrical systems, eg flickering lights, including dashboard lights, or having to jiggle the ignition key to start the vehicle
  • corrosion and/or oxidation on exposed metal components such as under dashboard components/panels and seatbelt anchorages: aluminium oxidation will show up as a white powder residue; copper oxidation will show up as a green discolouration
  • excessive debris, silt, or water lines in the engine bay compartment or in the crevices of engine components such as alternators.

Unfortunately, some owners may try to sell water damaged vehicles that they’ve tried to fix themselves, without using properly qualified experts.

We recommend that you keep the details of whomever you purchase a vehicle from. If you discover after purchase that it suffered water damage, you should first talk to the person that sold you the vehicle.

Tips on buying a used vehicle

Remember to check the vehicle safety rating

Vehicles not yet registered that are written-off

Insurers will notify us about any written-off not yet registered water damaged motor vehicles. This includes vehicles that are disposed of, such as a damaged vehicle auction facility, or where the insured chooses to retain the damaged vehicle.

Water damage will be noted in our system using the vehicle details (year, make, model and VIN), as a safeguard in case the vehicle is registered in the future.

Does Waka Kotahi hold information about water damaged vehicles?

Yes. Water damaged vehicles written off by insurers and de-registered should be notified to Waka Kotahi and listed on a publicly available ‘damaged vehicles’ register. This list isn’t exhaustive but it’s a good place to check (please note Waka Kotahi isn’t legally liable if a car is water damaged and not listed).

Waka Kotahi also accepts notifications of water damaged vehicles from anyone – please get in touch with us at frr@nzta.govt.nz

Find vehicles reported as damaged or written off