Local News

Flood Cars Continue to Resurface; Call Out for National Database of Title Information

Posted June 29, 2001 7:49 a.m. EDT

— Ever since Hurricane Floyd, WRAL's Five On Your Side has warned consumers about flood cars -- the more than 40,000 vehicles submerged in water and are being cleaned up and resold at car lots across the country.

In an ongoing investigation, Five on Your Side has been tracking many of these flood cars and has an update on where they are resurfacing, and what you can do to protect yourself from buying one.

It is Legal to Sell a Flood Car, but a Seller Must Disclose that Fact: Jamie Cuddington recently found out the 1995 Toyota Camry he bought last December is a flood car. He learned of the car's history from the North Carolina Attorney General's Officewhich is investigating the dealership that sold him the car.

Cuddington says he was shocked because he recalls specifically questioning his salesman about flood cars.

"I asked him, 'Is this a flood car?' He said 'No, we don't have no flood cars on my lot,'" says Cuddington.

"It's extremely easy for someone to sell a flood car without disclosing it," says Attorney Tom Domonoske, an expert in vehicle-related legal issues.

Domonoske says when you really think about how many vehicles were flooded, and then how many of them could become the mechanical messes of unsuspecting buyers, it is frightening.

"I think there's a lot of people out there buying flood damaged cars without knowing it," he says.

That is because even though state law requires sellers to brand titles as "flood damaged" and tell buyers in writing, dishonest dealers easily get around the law by hauling cars to states that have less stringent laws regarding car titles.

Following the Flood Cars from N.C.: Five On Your Side's flood car paper trail clearly shows it is happening.

Right after Hurricane Floyd, we gathered identification numbers from dozens of flooded cars and have been tracking their travels ever since.

  • A 1996 Isuzu Trooper was sold to a car dealer in Virginia.
  • A 1997 Honda CRV that was completely submerged re-emerged in Maryland in December, picked up a clean title, and then moved to New York in January. The buyer told us he bought the car in Miami.
  • A Ford Escort and Dodge Neon, both '98 models, went to Colorado.
  • A 1998 Mustang has been tracked to Utah.
  • A 1995 Windstar minivan was located in California.
  • A Ford Explorer went to Arkansas where it picked up a clean title in January. Title brands on several other vehicles that went to Arkansas have been switched from "flood" to "salvage" making it easier to get a clean title later on.
  • Three other 1998 model cars went to Utah where "flood" titles where switched to "salvage".
  • Some of North Carolina's flooded cars are among hundreds that went to Florida where they were sold at auction. Five on Your Side tracked one car from Florida to Illinois, while another went to New York.

    Many of the flood cars went to another country. Dealers who came to the auction in Florida came from the Bahamas, Mexico and Guatemala.

    Despite what the paperwork shows, Domonoske says many of the flood cars never leave North Carolina.

    "They can run the paperwork through one of those other states and leave the car where it is. Ultimately, the car could be sold in North Carolina when it had previously been branded, and now it wouldn't be branded on the title," he says.

    That means you could become one of the unsuspecting buyers. Domonoske is among a growing group of consumer advocates who feel the only real solution is a national database of title information.

    Changing the Law: After seeing Five On Your Side's first report on flood cars in September of 1999, North Carolina Senator John Edwards decided to co-sponsor federal legislationthat would do just that.

    "People deserve to know that they're buying a flood car," said Edwards.

    Edwards' bill would standardize the information each state puts on titles so that -- whether a car was flooded, totalled, or even just had major wreck damage -- every title would reflect it the same way no matter what state the title was issued in.

    "We can't solve this problem state by state. We need a national law that requires every single title to show that a car has been in a flood. That's the only way consumers are ultimately going to know," says Edwards.

    As Jamie Cuddington now knows, until a national database is in place, it is up to every car buyer to protect themselves.

    "Be very cautious," he says. "Take it to somebody who knows exactly what they're doing. Don't take the dealer's word for it. Second guess everybody."

    The dealership that sold Cuddington the flood car is currently under investigation by the Attorney General's Office. So that the case is not jeopardized, Five On Your Side is not yet disclosing the dealership's name.

    Remember, it is legal to sell a flood car, but a seller must disclose that fact.

    Protecting Yourself: One of the most important things you can do to avoid owning a flood damaged car is to do your homework before you step onto the car lot.

  • If you can, get the car's vehicle identification number. There are a number of companies that offer access to a national vehicle identification number database for a fee.
  • Demand to see the car's title.
  • Have a mechanic check out the car. In addition, make a thorough, physical check of the car yourself. Look under the carpet, seats and spare wheel well. Check for rust, mud and moisture.
  • Story originally aired July 11, 2000

    5 On Your Side Producer:Lori Lair