Pittsburgh Parking Authority sold 1,068 unclaimed, seized cars at auction
Last year, the parking authority booted 1,327 vehicles, and 122 of them were sold at auction
June 30, 2013 8:00 AM
Jim Smiechowski checks under the hood of a car he is considering bidding on. Mr. Smiechowski is a courier and is always on the lookout for his next vehicle because he puts a lot of miles on each one.
Prospective bidders look over vehicles that will be auctioned. About once every two months, McGann & Chester, which has the contract to tow cars for the city's parking authority, auctions unclaimed vehicles to the public. That includes those impounded by the parking authority and others seized by city police that have been held at the company's tow pound lot. Gates open an hour before the auction to allow people to examine vehicles.
The third generation of Hostetters is working at Hostetter Auctioneers. Dan Reeder is taking online bids on his laptop while his father-in-law, Sherman Hostetter Jr., calls the auction. Mr. Hostetter's daughter, Paige Johnston, and son, Matt Hostetter, are also working this auction.
By Paula Reed Ward Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sayeeida Taylor was pleased.
As she walked around the outside of the red 1999 Dodge Durango, the Sheraden woman spoke quickly into her cell phone.
"It's nice," she told the person on the other end of the line. "It needs a radio, and it's inspected until next year!"
The SUV, which had been booted by the Pittsburgh Parking Authority and impounded on March 14, was on the auction block Wednesday as part of the court-ordered sale of 15 such vehicles unclaimed by their rightful owners who had five or more unpaid tickets over the past 18 months.
"It had a boot, and they probably couldn't pay to get it off," Ms. Taylor was saying into her phone.
She was right. The vehicle's owner, a woman from Fayette County who could not be reached for this story, owed the city $810 in fines and costs. That included $300 for the boot fee and $110 to have it towed to a lot just outside the Liberty Tunnels.
After multiple attempts by certified letter to reach the owner regarding her outstanding tickets -- and a final notice that the Durango would be auctioned at a public sale on June 26 -- the car was not claimed.
One woman's loss is another's gain.
Bidding on the SUV, which appeared to be in pretty good shape except for some front end damage, started at only $300. By the time the man from Hostetter Auctioneers called it, Ms. Taylor had won it with a $525 offer.
"It's going to be my car," she said. "It's a nice-looking truck and won't be nothing to fix."
After finalizing the sale and completing the paperwork, Ms. Taylor will be able to request a new title from the state.
The proceeds from the auctions are used to reimburse the salvage firm -- in this case McGann & Chester -- for any costs associated with towing and storing the vehicle, and the rest is sent to the state treasurer.
"This is not a moneymaking proposition for McGann & Chester, and it is not a money-making proposition for the Parking Authority," said R. Rudy Filek Jr., the attorney who processes the sales for the court. "It's a necessary evil."
"We won't get what's owed to us," added Bob McGann, one of the owners of the company.
According to Jan T. Mc-Knight at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, after all fees and costs are paid, the Motor License Fund has collected approximately $25,600 since July 2008 in unclaimed abandoned vehicle sales across the state.
It's certainly not a windfall, but, Mr. Filek added, the auctions are necessary.
"If you don't auction, you can't impound. And if you can't impound, you can't boot. And if you can't boot, people won't pay their parking tickets."
It is the threat of having the boot that makes people pay, he said.
In Pittsburgh, the identification of boot-eligible vehicles is technologically advanced.
The parking authority operates two trucks outfitted with cameras that read license plates as they pass cars parked on city streets. The information is passed through a laptop computer.
"If it's a scofflaw vehicle, an alarm will sound," Mr. Filek said. "This all occurs almost instantaneously."
Vehicles that have five or more outstanding parking tickets for more than 30 days will get booted.
Last year, the parking authority booted 1,327 vehicles, and 122 were sold at auction.
Since the current booting program began in October 2005, 11,350 vehicles have been booted, and nearly $3 million has been collected in boot fees, according to the authority.
A total of 1,068 unclaimed vehicles have been sold at auction.
Once a car has gotten the boot, depending on where it is parked, it can remain that way for up to 72 hours. If the owner pays for the tickets, the boot is removed within an hour, Mr. Filek said.
If not, McGann & Chester tows it away.
State law provides that cars that remain unclaimed 30 days after notice has been sent to the registered owners and any lienholders shall be sold at a public auction.
McGann & Chester on Hargrove Street holds auctions about every two months. Vehicles on the block include those impounded by the parking authority and others seized by city police that have been held at the company's tow pound lot.
Both sets of vehicles can be claimed up until the start of the auction, Mr. Filek said.
That was the case on Wednesday when one of the premier vehicles from the tow pound list, a 2002 BMW X5, was redeemed the night before.
It had already garnered pre-bidding on Hostetter's online auction site.
Walking along the tow pound vehicles on Monday, it was clear that some would be used for nothing more than scrap.
That included a 1995 Chrysler Concord that had been through a serious fire, exposing steel belts where the rubber from one of its tires melted away. It went for $400.
Some of the vehicles are marked with a K, and if the customer is really lucky, they will have an R, too.
The K means there is a key. The R means it runs.
One of the cars that drew a lot of interest was a 2002 Lincoln LS with 168,232 miles on it. It had a key and ran, and a subwoofer box in the back seat. It ended up selling for $1,900.
The only vehicle that outdrew it was a 2006 GMC Envoy with 11,015 miles. Although the front end was heavily damaged, someone bid $2,100.
As part of the contract with the parking authority, employees with McGann & Chester are required to clean out the cars being sold for unpaid tickets.
That makes them considerably less disgusting than the vehicles being auctioned from the tow pound. One of the worst Wednesday was a 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan. It was filled with junk, ranging from a hydraulic jack, to shoes, tools, a car battery, boom box and empty gas can.
It, too, had a key and ran, but sold for just $375.
"It comes as is, where is," Mr. Filek said.
But, he noted, the vehicle could be valuable to a salvage yard, as it had roof racks, and other parts that could be sold.
Gary Hloznik, who works at a salvage yard in Tarentum, has been attending the auction at McGann & Chester for about three years.
When he first started, he would sometimes buy as many as 12 to 15 cars each time. Now, it's often only five.
On Wednesday, he bought a 2003 Dodge Durango for $1,400 with plans to take the motor out to use in his Dodge Dakota.
"Prices are up," he said.
Often, the only bidders are dealers, and when that happens the vehicles sell for much less, Mr. Hloznik said.
Although he used to buy vehicles to sell for parts, almost everything now is bought only for scrap.
Looking at each vehicle, he does a quick calculation in his head of how much money his business can get out of the various pieces of aluminum, iron and steel.
"Four aluminum wheels, that's $200. There are two catalytic converters," Mr. Hloznik said. "Sheer weight, you'd get about $425."