Car buyers beware of deals on wheels

Rattling off bids in a singsong chant, auctioneer Tom Henline moved along a line of impounded vehicles yesterday followed by a swarm of bidders, each clutching a small scrap of paper imprinted with a number.

"Show me the number! Show me the number!" he said after each successful bid as Pied Piper-like he led the buyers to the next car for sale near the Pulaski Highway impound lot.


With Henline, a West Virginian, doing the rapid-fire hawking, Baltimore officials offered a record number of cars, minivans, and trucks, more than 900, in two auctions. Some were nothing more than rusted and windowless hulks while others were only a few years old. And the prices ranged from under $75 to several thousand dollars.

"It's amusing," said Ray Clark of Northwest Baltimore. "It looks like a junkyard, but it's an auction."


The city holds auctions of impounded vehicles every other Wednesday with an average of 500 to 600 on the block, said Adrienne Barnes, Transportation Department spokeswoman. The bumper crop yesterday was because of a more aggressive effort to remove abandoned vehicles from the streets, she said.

"We have so many cars that we had to [use] another lot," Barnes said. After the morning auction at Pulaski Highway, an afternoon sale was held at the Wagners Point storage yard.

Many vehicles for were confiscated as a result of police actions, such as drug busts and prostitution stings, said Robert Suit, city towing manager. Others were involved in accidents. Still more were abandoned vehicles never retrieved after being impounded.

A vehicle can be considered abandoned if it remains unmoved on a city street for more than 48 hours, Suit said. Once it is towed to the impound lot, the city sends a letter to the registered owner requiring that the car be picked up within 11 days. If the city does not receive a response within 21 days, the vehicle can be auctioned to recoup towing and storage costs.

"If we dispose of the vehicle and the vehicle doesn't recoup the cost, then we charge the registered owner," Suit said.

Buying a vehicle at the auction has its risks. Most have to be towed from the lot because few have keys. It's the buyer's responsibility to move the car, have new keys made, then - if the car runs - have it inspected and registered.

Vehicles are sold strictly as-is, said Leonard Ottone, fiscal supervisor for towing.

Buying vehicles with uncertain pedigrees isn't a problem for Todd Tasker of Garrett County. A regular at auctions, Tasker buys run-down cars to enter in demolition derbies.


"The bigger they are, the better," Tasker said at the Pulaski sale. Yesterday, he came away empty-handed.

Harold Murdock Jr. of East Baltimore grinned as he opened the hood of his $75 purchase: a Plymouth Sundance.

"It's a car for my little brother, who is 18," said Murdock. "It's decent for what it cost."

Curtis Nelson, inventory and purchasing administrative manger for the department of finance, attends the auctions to ensure the deals go smoothly and to keep record of the sales.

Sometimes, a sale at auction doesn't mean the city has seen the last of a particular vehicle. Nelson said that occasionally vehicles that are sold wind up on the block again.

Two months ago, the city began charging $25 for admission to the auction. "We wanted to deter the people who were coming in there just to window shop," Ottone said.


The new fee hasn't stopped Michael Ogar of Dundalk, who has been coming to auctions for 19 years. He said he couldn't count how many cars he has bought over the years.

"Some I ship overseas," said Ogar, who is originally from Nigeria. "I ship some to family members, and some I sell."

Not everyone winds up a satisfied customer, however.

Zulfiqar Cheema of Towson showed up not to buy but to seek help.

Cheema said that he bought a 1993 Honda Accord at auction a few weeks ago. However, the Motor Vehicle Administration refused to issue him a title because the car has no title history, he said.

He said the city told him the problem was his to handle.


"I tried to give the car back," Cheema said, "but they didn't listen to me."