Is your car title clean, or has the dealer washed it?

If you know a little about cars, you have an advantage when you go searching for a reliable used vehicle. You may know what to look for under the hood and on the dashboard, and you may recognize when it is better to walk away from a vehicle. Even armed with this information, you may not fully know what you are getting when you make your purchase.

Most consumers shopping for used cars do not have the savvy or know-how to examine the engine and other parts for defects, so they have to rely on the integrity of the dealer. Unfortunately, car dealers are typically looking out for their own bottom lines, meeting their quotas and clearing lemons from their lots.

A lemon in every bunch

Like many states, Pennsylvania has laws to protect consumers from unwittingly buying vehicles that have unrepaired defects. This includes cars that insurers wrote off as totaled, flood damaged vehicles and autos a manufacturer repurchased under various state lemon laws. In most cases, the states require titles of damaged or irreparable vehicles to have brands identifying them as such to potential buyers. However, this is not true for all states.

For example, some states do not require a brand on a vehicle that the manufacturer repurchases under the lemon law. Therefore, an unscrupulous dealer may register such a vehicle in that more lenient state. Subsequently, the information about the defect will not be available to you if you want to purchase the vehicle. This is known as title washing. You may think you are getting a bargain because lemon law vehicles typically have low mileage.

Buyer beware

Dealers understand that a vehicle can only receive a brand on its title when the owner or insurer notifies the appropriate state agency. Many do not do this because it reduces the resale value of the vehicle. A vehicle with a brand on its title may be difficult for a dealer to sell. If you repair or rebuild cars as a hobby, you may be interested in purchasing a vehicle with a title branded as "salvage." However, you may not want to drive your children to school in that car.

If, in fact, you do end up with a vehicle that should have a branded title but does not, you may be the victim of dealer fraud. You may benefit from obtaining the services of a skilled consumer attorney who will have the resources to assist you in seeking justice.

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