Washed-up: State bans selling secret junkers

Come July, buying a used car in Virginia will become a little less risky. That's because "title-washing" will no longer be legal, thanks to the passage of House Bill 1521.

In a recent cover story ["Taken for a Ride: The Secret History of Salvaged Cars," January 23], we chronicled a local woman's experience with the practice, which has come under fire from car buyers and sellers alike.

Her story was typical: After paying $19,500 for a late-model Honda at Brady-Bushey Ford on Pantops, she began having almost constant problems with the car. Finally, when she explored trading it in at a used-car lot in Amherst, she learned that it had been severely damaged in a three-car accident in Maryland, sold for salvage, rebuilt in Virginia, and given a clean title. As a result, its value had plummeted. Brady-Bushey offered to take it off her hands for $8,000.

A 1999 attempt to pass federal legislation outlawing the practice failed, and the burden to act was passed to individual states.

"I carried your article around with me," says Carter Myers, who is the immediate past chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), and who lobbied for passage of the bill. Myers, owner of Charlottesville's Colonial Auto Center, credits Virginia for "taking the lead position, and hopefully other states will follow."

Max Pearson, an 84-year-old dealer in Richmond, worked for 12 years to see the practice banned. According to R. Michael Allen, director of public affairs for the Virginia Automobile Dealer Association, Pearson believed– passionately– that "Somebody has to stand up to insurance companies."

As Allen said, "Insurance companies are the opposition." That's because under the current system, they make a lot more selling a car that's going to be rebuilt– then purged of its shady past– than they make selling a car for parts.

Ultimately, NADA hopes that a nationwide database that links motor vehicle-department computers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia– currently in the testing stage– will allow consumers to quickly research a car's history. Until then, even with the passage of HB 1521, Virginia used-car buyers will need to invest time and energy in researching any vehicle they're thinking of buying.