Monday, January 21, 2013

Bottom feeders. (Have I got a used car for you…)

A crisis event tends to bring out the best in some of the people, some of the time. Thus, we hear the post-Sandy stories of heroism, selflessness, drop-everything-and-go-help-ism.

Everyone, of course, can’t be a best-y, but a crisis event does manage to bring out the good in some of the other people, some of the time. Thus, we have all the folks texting ten bucks to the Red Cross after they hear The Boss or Jon Bon Jovi dedicate a song to the Jersey Shore and ask for money.

And a crisis event, unfortunately but quite naturally, also manages to bring out the worst, the complete POS-iness in some of the people, some of the time.

For nomination to this latter fine category, I give you the used car dealers who are deliberately and knowingly selling cars that were totaled in the floods after Hurricane Sandy.

At a recent Mannheim auction, a lot of Sandy’s vehicular victims – drained of saltwater, buffed up a bit, folks were snapping up damaged goods.

Some were to be dismantled into salvageable parts, like wheels and fenders; some were to be melted down for their rubber and steel. And yet, while all have titles branding them flood cars, not all were destined for the scrap heap.

Many were headed to out-of-state resale markets where, because of inconsistencies in state laws, buyers will have no inkling that the vehicles were so damaged by floodwater that insurance companies deemed them a total loss.  (Source: NY Times.)

And while it won’t be directly by Mannheim – see no evil, hear no evil - those buyers will be steamrolled. Those cars might look okay. If you lick the upholstery, you may not taste salt, but sitting in a saline solution is not healthy for cars. Especially now that cars are so full of electronics. Salt water may be good for making salt water taffy, but when it’s in your car, it ends up corroding its innards. But while the engine may turn over, and the car may run sort of okay, in the long run, the autos may turn out to be, if not unsafe at any speed, then complete lemons, This will give their owners even more and worse problems than those that often accompany used cars.

It all starts out on the up and up.

Your insurance agent swoops in, declares the car a total loss, and writes you a check. From the water-logged car owner’s perspective, it’s all good (especially if they had full replacement cost insurance). Sure, they may have lost the glow-in-the-dark safety triangle and flare they had in the trunk. That AAA triptych of their cross-country road trip may no longer be usable. And those power bars kept for the just in case emergency, like getting stranded on a highway during a blizzard, now belong to the ages. But, other than those little car-owner losses, so far, so good.

At this point, the insurance company brings in an outfit that specializes in reselling the damaged goods. This is a serious business. One of the specialists even:

…employs people to study weather forecasts and predict where the next disaster will be.

Once they luck out and disaster strikes, they clean up the cars and sell them at auction (which is where most used cars that end up on the lots with the little plastic pennants come from).

Cars that had sustained storm damage can arrive at auction branded improperly, or have their titles fudged after they leave. In most states, cars destroyed by flooding are required to have their titles marked, or branded, to indicate that fact. But clearing that scarlet letter can be as easy as re-registering for a title in another state that does not require the flood brand carry-over, a process known as “title washing.” Unscrupulous dealers pile their purchases on flatbeds and head straight for those states, like Colorado and Vermont.

So the fear is that thousands of title-washed cars will be entering the market. States, the National Automobile Dealers Associates, and outfits like CarFax, are starting to issue warnings.

If you’re in the market for a used car, you really want to know where that Vehicle Identification Number’s been. Be very suspicious of a car that’s lived in the Garden State or on Staten Island. And just to be on the safe side, give any car you’re considering buying a lick test. Those who have spruced up the cars have no doubt wiped down the dashboard and the pleather seats. But they may not have cleansed the insides of, say, the glove compartment. So wet your pointer, swipe it across the inside surface of that glove compartment, and give it a tiny little lick with the tip of your tongue.

Remind you of a pretzel?

Run, don’t walk, to another used car lot and start over – maybe ask to see a car that grew up in New Mexico.

Duping people into buying a title-washed car that they think’s okay? It’s enough to give the used car business a bad name.

Oh, wait a minute…

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