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Related topics: savings, cars, car shopping, used cars, car repairs

It looks perfect, yet the price is surprisingly low. You take the necessary precautions by running a cursory title check on it through Carfax or some other vehicle-history service. It comes back without any indication that there's anything wrong with it. So you decide to save yourself thousands of dollars and you buy it.

Screaming deal? Or screaming headache?

Bad cars get new lives

Well, if your new car is one of millions of vehicles damaged by flood or totaled in an accident each year and then quickly rebuilt and returned to the market with a "clean" title, you're probably facing a long-term headache.

Although vehicles that have been flooded or totaled in an accident are supposed to be branded "flood titled" or "salvage titled," there are many ways that those marks can be erased. It's possible for a vehicle to re-enter the market and be resold despite possibly being unsafe and unreliable.

"In most cases, the salvage brand goes off the vehicle if it goes through two or three owners in different states," explains Rob Painter, a Dallas-area expert on stolen cars and refurbished vehicles.

"I can buy a car in New York, then register it in Wisconsin and then move it to Ohio and register it again, and by that time it's no longer a salvage vehicle," Painter says. "The guy who buys it gets ripped off because he doesn't know it's been flooded or the frame has been re-welded and that the car is very unsafe."

Holes in the car-title system

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System was created in 1982 with the goal of electronically linking state departments of motor vehicles and requiring car insurance companies to report damaged vehicles that are considered "totaled," meaning they have lost at least 75% of their value due to damage.

Theoretically, this system would reduce the time it takes for a salvage vehicle to be re-titled from more than three months to just seven days -- eliminating the time unscrupulous sellers have to either rebuild the car or "wash" the title by registering it in multiple states or in states with lax car-titling laws.

But a bill that would give teeth to this law failed to pass Congress. According to Angie Wilson, the vice president of marketing and communications for the Automotive Service Association, the "Damaged Vehicle Information Act" did not move forward in 2010 and will have to be re-introduced in the 112th Congress.

The bill, according to Bailey Wood of the National Automobile Dealers Association, would require car insurance companies to electronically disclose the vehicle identification numbers of totaled vehicles and allow that information to be quickly posted on such vehicle-history providers as Carfax and AutoCheck.