RALEIGH — "In other states, they're already referring to these as Carolina lemons," said investigator George Leggett.
There are an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 waterlogged lemons in North Carolina alone. They were damaged in Hurricane Floyd's flood waters.
So, where are the muddy, mechanical messes now?
"We anticipate these cars are going to be hitting the streets within the next couple of months," said Leggett.
Leggett is an investigator withNorth Carolina's Attorney General's Office. He warns many Floyd damaged vehicles will be dried out, cleaned up and re-sold to unsuspecting buyers.
"If one of these cars are detailed by a professional, it is virtually impossible for the average consumer to tell," explained Leggett.
Chet Nedwidek, owner of Hi-Tech Imports in Raleigh, says the problem is no matter how well the vehicles are cleaned, eventually they will corrode.
"It may take six months to a year or longer before you start seeing problems, but when you do, you're going to have a lot of problems," said Nedwidek.
The most serious problems will involve electrical systems.
"You get erratic operation of your gauges, and you have shorts. If you get water in there (car's computer) and get a short, it's done" said Nedwidek.
Under state law, sellers must disclose a car's flood history, but often they do not.
That is because after insurance companies label flood vehicles as a "total loss," they are taken to salvage yards and auctioned to parts dealers, wholesalers and used car dealerships.
TheDepartment of Motor Vehiclesthen re-titles the cars as "salvage" to alert potential buyers of their flood history, but it is no guarantee.
"This is a list of brand new cars from a dealer. All of these cars were totalled by the insurance company. Our information is that they're already on their way to Missouri and Virginia," said Leggett.
By hauling cars to states that do not have tough titling laws, dishonest dealers can "launder" a title, have the "salvage" brand "washed off" or removed and then sell the car without disclosing its flood history.
Another problem occurs with cars that are not total losses. Owners of those cars will likely sell them to other consumers or trade them through dealerships without disclosing the history because they do not know they have to under the law.
To track what really happens to flood damaged cars, 5 On Your Side gathered vehicle identification numbers of more than 40 flooded cars from Rocky Mount to Princeville to Goldsboro.
So far, our title searches show they are all still in the hands of individuals and insurance companies.
Used car buyers need to protect themselves. When a car has been under water, not only do you get the water, but you get the mud and silt. That is usually the tell-tale sign.
Start by looking for signs of fading or water lines on the carpet and upholstery. Pull up the carpet and look for moisture, mud or rust.
Look in places someone may not take the time to clean like under the seats, under the dashboard and in the trunk and spare tire well.
You can also use a private company such asCarfaxto run a title search.
Right now, the company is offering free flood checks through its Web site. The best advice, as with any used car, is get it checked out by an independent mechanic.
Story originally aired November 18, 1999