Cleaning up the mystery of vehicle title washing

When you buy a used car, you’re happy if the seller vacuums the interior and gives the exterior a good wash and wax before you take possession. But there’s one kind of “cleanup” that you want to avoid when you’re buying used: title washing.

Title – or “brand” – washing occurs when a seller takes steps to hide the damaged or totaled condition of a vehicle. When a vehicle is damaged or declared a total loss due to flood, fire, accident, natural disaster or other circumstance, the state in which it’s titled will “brand” the title, noting the condition on the document. Unscrupulous sellers circumvent the branding by repairing or camouflaging the damage and then titling the vehicle in a different state.

“What title washing means for consumers is that they can end up paying far more for a salvaged or totaled vehicle than it’s worth, thinking they’re buying a used vehicle in good condition,” says Joshua Steffan, director for Experian Automotive. “Often, a buyer will be unaware of the vehicle’s true condition until they’ve completed the purchase, driven the vehicle and started to experience problems related to the hidden damage.”

Bureau of Transportation statistics indicate that in any given year, the number of used car sales is about three times the number of new vehicle sales. With the recession driving demand for used vehicles over the past few years, incidences of title washing have also increased.

In fact, during the first six months of 2011, 257,245 vehicles were initially branded and then transferred or retitled in a second state with a clean title, according to the AutoCheck vehicle history report database. In 2008, that happened to just 185,000 vehicles. Most of the title washed vehicles in 2011 were branded as salvage (39 percent) or rebuildable (26 percent).

Title washing also tends to increase in regions that have experienced a natural disaster, like a hurricane. In such situations, flood waters will often leave many vehicles unusable and many states will brand a vehicle’s title as flood damaged.

So how can you protect yourself from the risk of buying a title-washed vehicle? Steffan offers some advice:

* Check the vehicle’s background by purchasing a vehicle history report. Most title-washed cars keep their original vehicle identification numbers (VIN), which is all you need to order an AutoCheck report. The report includes information on the status of the title (including if it’s been branded), a check of possible problems, an odometer check, the history of how the vehicle was used (as a rental or private vehicle) and any events, such as accidents or flood damage that have been reported on the vehicle. You’ll also get the ZIP code of where the vehicle has been registered, and you can use online resources to match that information to regions where the vehicle might have been exposed to floods or other natural disasters.

* Have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic. Some title washers, however, are pros and may have reconstructed a car so well that it’s hard for even a professional to tell.

* When you first see the vehicle, look for discoloration on seats, seatbelts or door panels that might indicate mineral deposits left behind by flood waters. You may see moisture on the inside of the instrument panel. Do a sniff test. A water-damaged vehicle might smell moldy or musty. Or, it might smell strongly of potent cleansers that the seller has used to mask the odor of mold.

* Fresh paint on newer-model cars may indicate the vehicle has been in an accident and had bodywork done. Mismatched panels and extremely low mileage may also be red flags.

* Always check to ensure the VIN on the vehicle’s paperwork matches the one on the vehicle. The location of the VIN varies from vehicle to vehicle, but you’ll often find it on a small metal plate in the corner of the windshield nearest the driver. Other locations include on the engine or engine block, or the right front wheel well.

“Ultimately, a title check from a vehicle history report is the optimum way to know as much as possible about a vehicle you’re considering buying,” Steffan says. “A modest investment can help you avoid making a costly mistake.”