MIDDLESEX — If you are looking to buy a used car anytime within the next few years, watch out. You may be sold a car flooded during Hurricane Floyd.
About 50,000 cars were submerged in flood waters for days. Most were left a muddy, smelly, waterlogged mess. For more than four months, WRAL's 5 On Your Side has been tracking the flooded cars.
Where are they now?
Many have become the electrical and mechanical headaches of unsuspecting buyers like Lauralee George of Middlesex.
"I had no idea it was a flood car. None whatsoever. It started with the dash lights," says George, who bought a '94 Mitsubishi Mirage in Zebulon last December.
"The passenger side window got stuck down a little bit. Then this window got stuck down all the way. When you turn on the heat, chips of mud blow at you. Then the transmission went out," she says.
The mechanic George hired to fix the car broke the news that her purchase was a flooded car.
"When he tore the transmission out, there was mud underneath, caked underneath," she says.
George Leggett, an investigator with the North Carolina Department of Justice, says many more of those cars are sitting in lots across the state.
"We're afraid many consumers are going to purchase these cars, they're not going to be told. Ultimately down the road they're going to be stuck with major repair bills and problems they're not going to be able to handle," says Leggett.
While state law requires sellers to make sure titles are branded as flood damaged, and then tell buyers in writing, many do not.
Dishonest dealers further circumvent the law by hauling flood cars to states that have less stringent titling laws, and where buyers are less likely to understand just how severely the cars were flooded.
That is what makes the flooded car paper trail 5 On Your Side has been tracking for the past several months so interesting.
Right after Hurricane Floyd, 5 On Your Side gathered identification numbers from dozens of flooded cars. WRAL has since scoured stacks of public records, searched the Internet and made dozens of phone calls. The results are eye-opening.
Here are some examples:
Some of North Carolina's flooded cars went to Arkansas, Tennessee and Fla. -- states that are home to a handful of dealers who specialize in mass sales of cream of the crop disaster vehicles.
At least 700 flooded cars were sold at an auction in Taft, Fla. Many of the cars sold there will end up in another country. Dealers came from the Bahamas, Mexico, and Guatemala.
While most flooded cars sell for half of what they would normally be worth, Lauralee George just wants her money back.
George paid $3,500 for her car, which would have been a fair price had it not been flooded. She now realizes had she looked for the telltale signs -- mud under the carpet, around hoses and wires, mud and rust under the dash, and moisture in the headlights -- she would have figured out it was a flooded car.
Another way to help protect yourself is to cross check the vehicle identification numberof any used car you are considering with the list of Floyd-flooded cars now posted on theN.C. Attorney General's Web site. The list only includes cars that were properly retitled in the state; tens of thousands were not.
But the best way to protect yourself is to do what George now wishes she had done.
"Take it to a mechanic and let them look at it," she says.
Lauralee George bought her car from His and Her Used Cars in Zebulon. Repeated phone calls by 5 On Your Side were not returned.
5 On Your Side went to the shop, but it was closed and all of the cars are cleared from the lot.
However, George's car was parked in front. That is because the Attorney General's Office convinced shop owner Ivan Clemonts to refund $1,400 of what George spent on the car.