ehicle title washing sounds a little like a car wash but, in this case, the consumer gets soaked. With as many as 45 million used cars and trucks sold in 1999, it's perhaps not surprising that a number of those vehicles come fully equipped—equipped with headaches from the merely cosmetic to those threatening safety. These questions and answers can steer you through the title washing track.

What is vehicle title washing?
Vehicle title washing occurs when vehicle rebuilders patch together severely damaged and salvaged vehicles in one state, and then move to another state to obtain clear and clean title that gives a buyer no clue of the vehicle's past damage. Often, the rebuilt vehicles have significant defects that bring buyers problems, expenses, and safety risks.

In 1998, 2.5 million U.S. vehicles were so badly damaged that they were declared a total loss, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Of these, approximately 40% were rebuilt and put back on the road. Women, minorities, recent immigrants, and teenagers buying their first cars are common targets of unscrupulous vehicle sellers.

How does vehicle title washing affect consumers?
There are numerous cases, but here are some examples:

  • A California college student purchased a car from a major franchised dealer who maintained that the vehicle was "certified" and had passed a "100-point inspection." The buyer began experiencing problems immediately after purchase. First, the steering rack had to be replaced. Then, she discovered the frame was bent, which made the vehicle unsafe and unstable. The tires wore unevenly. The trunk leaked. The buyer had the car inspected by an independent repair shop and learned that the vehicle had been involved in a serious wreck. When the car was rebuilt, the workmanship was so poor that it rendered the vehicle unstable. The buyer confronted the dealer, who refused to take the car back. She hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit to get out of the deal.

  • A Chicago-area businesswoman bought a car from what she thought was a reputable dealer, but later learned that the car had been rebuilt after a wreck. A mechanic found the engine was not properly lined up in the chassis and that parts of the car had been welded together where bolts normally are used. During a four-year-long court suit, the woman's attorneys learned that the wrecked car had been purchased by an out-of-state backyard mechanic who had tried to fix it up and then sold it to a repair shop in another state—where a couple purchased it and later traded it in.

  • A 73-year-old Northern California woman was awarded $100,000 in punitive damages in a lawsuit accusing a dealer of selling her and her late husband a used car without disclosing that it had been in a crash.
    patch together
    damaged vehicles
    in one state and then
    move to another state
    to obtain
    clear and clean title.

Who has laws against title washing, and is any legislation pending?
California, Michigan, and Iowa have tough consumer protection laws prescribing when a vehicle's title must be branded as salvage or nonrepairable—but other states are less protective. Unscrupulous individuals take advantage of this lack of uniformity and move wrecked vehicles to states having low or no standards in vehicle retitling. In this way, they are able to wipe out the vehicle's damage history.

Nationally, both Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.) have sponsored bills supporting a uniform national standard for dealing with wrecked and salvaged vehicles. Lott's bill would classify as "salvage" a vehicle that sustains damage exceeding 75% of its preaccident value, but would permit states to enact lower percentages. It also would require warning labels on rebuilt salvage vehicles. Feinstein's bill goes further—requiring the word "salvage" to be stamped on the title of any vehicle with damage exceeding 65% of its preaccident value. It also would require owners to disclose any damage exceeding $3,000, unless the damage was entirely cosmetic.
    About 40%
    of the 2.5 million
    U.S. vehicles declared
    a total loss in 1998
    were rebuilt
    and put back
    on the road.

How do I know if a car has been title-washed?
In some cases, you may not be able to know for sure—but here are some measures you can take:

  • Check the title to see if the car is an out-of-state vehicle. Does it say "salvaged"? If the title doesn't say the car is salvaged then:

  • Check to see if the paint on the outside of the car matches the paint inside the door frame.

  • Make sure that the parts of the car line up with each other—and that the gaps between the doors and around the hood and trunk are straight and even.

  • Have a mechanic check underneath for evidence of welding of the frame or unibody.

  • Look for evidence of flood damage. Check under the mat for mud or dirt. Look for watermarks on the inside of the doors, and for moisture inside the trunk and under the seats.
Source: Consumer Federation of America.
    Lack of uniformity
    among state laws
    lets crooks move
    wrecked vehicles to
    states having low or no
    standards for
    vehicle retitling.

What steps can I take to protect myself?
Before making a down payment on a used car:

  • Get the car's vehicle identification number (VIN). Every vehicle manufactured since 1981 has a 17-character VIN that identifies the year, make, model, body style, engine size, restraint system, and place of manufacture.

  • Carfax offers credit union members vehicle title histories on cars they plan to buy or sell. A free report is available when you enter your VIN. You also can ask the dealer to check Carfax and show you the results.

  • At the car lot, ask to see a copy of the dealer's warranty before you buy. There may be none.

  • Ask for the car's maintenance record from the owner, dealer, or repair shop.

  • Ask to take the car to an independent garage or mechanic for an unbiased third-party inspection before buying.