RICHMOND (AP) -- The threshold at which water damage to vehicles must be disclosed to buyers would rise under a bill that cleared the House of Delegates Thursday despite warnings it could make Virginia a dumping ground for flooded cars.

The House voted 73-25 to raise the amount of repair allowed before water damage must be recorded on a vehicle's title from $1,000 to $5,000, which would make Virginia the state with the highest water damage threshold in the nation. The Senate sent its version back to committee to reach a compromise.

Del. Matthew Lohr, R-Rockingham County, said his bill is needed because cars are more expensive than they were when the threshold was established in the 1960s and the $1,000 limit could make it difficult to sell a high-end car with very little water damage. A water damage branded title greatly impacts the value of a vehicle.

Consumer advocates and some legislators say the change would result in buyers being duped into purchasing vehicles with residual odors and corroded electrical systems, spiffed up with air freshener and new carpet to appear unharmed.

'It would be like an open invitation: Dump your flood cars here,' said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety. Her Sacramento, Calif., organization was one of several that sent letters urging lawmakers to reject the proposal.

Only Virginia, the District of Columbia and Hawaii have thresholds -- each at $1,000 -- for the amount of water damage allowed before it must be disclosed on the vehicle's title, according to the National Consumer Law Center. At least nine other states require disclosure that a vehicle has been in a flood or suffered other water damage.

'Virginia's law is already one of the most lax in the country, and this bill would make our law arguably the worst,' said Del. Robin Abbott, D-Newport News.

If the damage is more than 75 percent of the vehicle's value, it would have to be salvaged and could not be driven again.

The Department of Motor Vehicles has not taken a position on the bill, but does believe the law needs updating, said Melanie Stokes, a spokeswoman for the agency. The department got together organizations representing the automobile insurance industry, car dealers and auto salvagers to come up with legislation. No consumer groups were represented.

'It's not a bill to cheat the consumer or open the door to more fraud; it just makes sense that the last time this minimum threshold was elevated was in 1966,' Lohr said.

Back then, most new cars cost less than $5,000, so $1,000 in damage was much greater than it is today, when leaving the sunroof open on a Mercedes for a few hours could do several thousand dollars in damage to its leather interior and wood paneling.

'All this does is it acknowledges that $1,000 damage from water in 1966 was much more catastrophic and much larger percentage of the value of the vehicle than it is today,' said Del. Bill Janis, R-Henrico.

Virginia Automotive Recyclers Association refused to comment on the bill, but provided a list of talking points that says the bills would save the DMV from having to inspect vehicles with minor water damage, and would help owners and dealers sell those cars.

Representatives of the auto dealer industry, which has donated more than $350,000 to political candidates over the past year, did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Democrats chided Republicans for not wanting to raise taxes or fees to avoid massive cuts in public services due to a $4 billion budget shortfall because of the fear of hurting working Virginians while at the same time supporting a bill that would keep information about significant damage to vehicles from unsuspecting buyers.

'Would you want your daughter to know that that car had been flood damaged?' said Del. Joe Morrissey, D-Henrico. 'Would you like your daughter to know that the crank shaft had been filled with water, the transmission possibly damaged, the brakes damaged? This bill is simply about notice.'

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