In the market for a pre-owned vehicle? Look before you sign, Georgia consumer protection officials are warning.
A day after the National Automobile Dealers Association reported that flooding and other damage from Hurricane Sandy destroyed around 100,000 vehicles, the state Attorney General’s Office and the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection is warning auto buyers to have the vehicle you want to buy thoroughly inspected before sealing the deal.
The vehicles could be sold at auction, cleaned up afterward (or before) and end up on metro Atlanta’s hundreds of car lots or in online listings. While titles are required to indicate whether the vehicle is “flood,” “junk,” “salvage,” “rebuilt,” or “reconstructed,” they don’t always, even if insurers have salvaged or totaled them out.
“The best advice is to check out the vehicle before you purchase it because after the fact it’s going to be very difficult to get restitution or damages for what’s happened to you,” Shawn Conroy, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection, said Wednesday. “Sure, after the fact you can file a complaint, you can hire an attorney, but that’s going to take time and money.”
Conroy said Georgia’s Fair Business Practices Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive acts or practices in the marketplace, gives auto buyers up to two years to file a complaint from the date of purchase. “The hard part about this is that depending on where you purchased the car you may not have someone to go after,” he said.
A sign of the demand for used vehicles is how much they have gone up in price, 20 percent in the last three years, according to the NADA. Dealerships are also pushing sales to clear out inventory before the beginning of the year.
You can check out a vehicle’s history at the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. The website is described as “the only database where all auto insurers, salvage pools that auction off totaled cars, junkyards, recyclers and self-insured entities such as rental car companies in all 50 states are required by law to report total loss vehicles within 30 days. The cost for a report ranges from $3 to $13.”
In addition to checking the title beforehand, state officials say there are other things you can look out for yourself:
A musty odor may be noticeable, and water marks may be evident or fabrics faded. Metal may be flaking prematurely, and rust, mud and grit may be hidden in the crevices where water would not normally reach. Check the upholstery, dashboard, glove compartment, trunk, inner doors, engine area, and under the seats and carpeting. Look for drainage holes beneath the car, and check gauges and the condition and flexibility of all wires, including those below the dash. Have someone do a close inspection of the alternator crevices, behind wiring harnesses, and around the small recesses of starter motors, power steering pumps and relays. Test and retest the ignition, lights, wipers, air conditioner, heater and all accessories.
If you believe you have purchased a flood-damaged vehicle, contact the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection at 404-651-8600 or 1-800-869-1123 (toll-free in Georgia, outside of the metro Atlanta calling area).