- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

Cars and trucks waterlogged by Hurricane Katrina are turning up in Virginia and Maryland in numbers far exceeding the national average, according to a study released yesterday.

The number of vehicles for sale with undisclosed water damage increased in Virginia from 2002 to 2006 by 189 percent over the previous five years, according to a report released yesterday by Carfax, a Centreville, Va., company that sells vehicle history reports nationwide.

In Maryland, the increase was 136 percent. The increase was only 8 percent in the District.

“Flooded cars are indeed on the move and consumers everywhere are at risk,” Carfax spokesman Larry Gamache said.

The spike in the number of flood-damaged vehicles largely is the result of Hurricane Katrina and other major storms that slammed the Gulf Coast in 2004 and 2005, flooding hundreds of thousands of vehicles.

Mississippi leads the nation in the increases of reported cases of water-damaged cars from 2002 to 2006 with 633 percent. Alabama was second with 374 percent, and followed by Louisiana with 343 percent.

But flood-damaged cars increasingly are showing up for sale far from hurricane-prone areas of the country.

“Obviously the biggest increases [of waterlogged used cars] were in the Gulf Coast, but we also saw a clear pattern of massive growth in those states that not only neighbor the Gulf Coast but also have major metropolitan areas,” Carfax spokesman Christopher Basso said.

“There is a little higher standard of living [in Virginia and Maryland] than in other parts of the country, and there area a lot of people in the area looking to buy used cars.”

And because Maryland and Virginia haven’t received a direct hit from a hurricane in years, car buyers in those states are less likely to question whether the vehicle they are buying had been submerged, Mr. Basso said.

“When you go to buy a used car, do you really think about it being in Louisiana under 6 feet of water?” he said. “These cars are on the move, and they’re moving to areas where people may not think about flood damage.”

Only two states — Nebraska and Nevada — showed a decrease in flood-damaged vehicles.

Nationally, excluding Alaska and Hawaii, the number of undisclosed waterlogged vehicles for sale increased 103 percent during the same time period, Carfax reported.

The company did not release the specific numbers of cars damaged.

Insurance companies usually buy damaged vehicles from policyholders, declare them “totaled” and then sell them at auctions to be resold for parts, many of which remain suitable for use in other cars and trucks.

But some dishonest dealers and wholesalers buy flood-damaged cars at scrap prices, clean them up, retitle them and resell them.

The situation is complicated because vehicle titling regulations vary by state and the majority of flood-damaged cars are being sold by individuals, not car dealers, Carfax said.

Most states offer consumers who unknowingly buy a flood-damaged vehicle some legal protection.

Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, and Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican, in December proposed the “Consumer access to total loss vehicle data act,” which would make it easier for consumers to obtain information about vehicles declared a total loss by insurance companies.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Lott said the senator hopes to introduce a bill supporting the act later this year.

AAA spokesman John Townsend said prospective used-vehicle buyers should look for tell-tale signs of flooding, such as rust under the seats and on the frame, and “bubbling” of the fabric on the inside roof.

“You really have to give it an eyeball,” he said. “It will pay you to spend $50 to have a mechanic jack up the car and take a look.”

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