By: Tony Markovich
Opting to purchase a salvage car is one of the riskiest routes a buyer can take when shopping for a vehicle. Yes, it’s possible to find deals amongst the muck, but it requires intense research, knowledge of what to look for, and a propensity for embracing damaged goods.
We’re not talking about buying a salvage-titled car that somebody else has already repaired (we’ll dive into that another time). This is for those of you who might be brave enough to buy something broken with hopes of putting it back on the road.
What you need to know first is that a majority of salvage cars will be tainted by prior accidents or mishaps, many of which have direct harm done to the engine and the frame, the two most crucial components of a vehicle. If that’s the case, you may need experienced professionals to help you through the recovery process.
However, if there’s a specific car you just have to have no matter the operational state, or if you’re searching for that mythical undamaged salvage vehicle — yes, they do exist — there are ways to find them and several precautions to take. You’ll need a lot of patience and a clear understanding of what all is included in the salvage title umbrella.
To better process everything required in the search to buy a salvage vehicle, Car Bibles has created a guide filled with helpful information about what a salvage title means, how to deal with totaled vehicles, and how to know when to walk away. Let’s begin!
What is a salvage car?
A salvage car is a car that has been officially classified with a salvage title. Let’s break that down into simple terms:
- Title: A title is the document that officially ties an owner to a vehicle.
- Branded title: A brand on a title provides crucially important information about the vehicle’s past, with a priority on trauma. Common brands include: damaged, dismantled, junk, lemon law buyback, prior police, prior taxi, rebuilt, reconditioned, remanufactured, replica, revived junk, revived salvage, salvage, scrap vehicle, totaled, warranty returned, or water damage. These brands, and how they are worded, vary from state to state.
- Salvage title: A salvage title is a type of branded title that states the car has been through some type of serious trauma, most commonly a major accident, a natural disaster, or theft. In the case of an accident, qualification for a salvage title generally includes repair costs surpassing the value of the vehicle. However, this qualification changes from state to state. For example, Illinois is much more strict, so a vehicle can qualify for a salvage title if it has damage that amounts to repairs costs of one-third or 33 percent of the market value of the vehicle.
Can you drive a salvage car on public roads?
You cannot drive a salvage vehicle on public roads until it is completely repaired and revived up to your state’s specific standards. To make it legal, it needs to be inspected, certified, and then re-registered. You’ll want to call your local DMV to find out exactly what those standards are, you can also look it up on your state’s dmv.gov website.
What’s the difference between a salvage car and a revived or restored salvage car?
There are two primary versions of a salvage title. A regular salvage title is for a car that has been deemed a total loss. It cannot be driven on public roads.
A rebuilt or restored salvage title denotes that the car was previously written off as a total loss but has since been repaired to the safety and quality standards set by the state in which the vehicle was registered. Only after it has had its title changed from salvage to revived or restored salvage can it be driven on public roads.
What To Consider When Buying a Salvage Car
Buying a salvage car can be an extremely risky proposition, so you need to have a strict plan and stick to it to avoid getting scammed or fleeced. With the right research and some patience, you might be able to walk away with a good deal.
I personally would never consider a vehicle with a salvage title. If you’re uncomfortable with risk or need the reassurance that your car is clean, do not buy a vehicle with a salvage title. There’s no guarantee that the salvage car will not break down in a couple months, though there’s no guarantee like that on non-salvage cars either. So it really comes down to your comfort with risk.
Consider a different vehicle of the same make/model.
There is a car out there that is exactly the same as the one you are looking at, but there is a major difference: It has a clean title, not a salvage title. Yes, it will cost more, but peace of mind is something many buyers are willing to pay for.
Vet the seller.
A major key to trusting a vehicle is trusting the seller. Try to find a seller with a confirmed history of truthful and honest dealings. Find a seller that is willing to volunteer all of the necessary information up front rather than you having to claw and scratch for it. You can do this by talking to previous buyers, reading online reviews (though those are less and less reliable), talking to multiple employees, asking dozens of questions, and checking all of the answers with research.
Prioritize stolen salvage vehicles.
The quickest way to find a clean salvage vehicle is to find one that has been involved in a theft. When vehicles are stolen and are not recovered in a specific amount of time (usually around 3-4 weeks) the insurance company writes them off as totaled. If that vehicle is then recovered, it is given a salvage title and often resold in an auction. If the theft did not involve damaging the vehicle in any way, it’s possible to get a perfectly good car for a discount.
Get into detective mode.
If you’re buying a salvage vehicle, you need to go full Sherlock Holmes to unearth every single fact that exists about that vehicle. Break out every trick in the book to find out the vehicle’s past, its accidents, what fuel it drank, what track it works out at, its go-to breakfast, and its favorite color. This will help you create a historical timeline for the vehicle, which will help you track down any accidents and help you determine if the vehicle is worth purchasing.
Run it through a professional inspection.
If you’re going to buy a salvage car, you better have a mechanic for a best friend, or at least one you trust with your life savings, because that’s what could be at stake. Get a professional inspection, and have the garage/shop/mechanic give you a detailed list of everything that it would need to get it safely and legally back on the road.
If the car is too far gone, your trusted associate should be able to tell you.
Estimate your repairs.
Before you purchase a salvage vehicle, it’s a great idea to have the vehicle evaluated for repairs. Check how much money it will cost to get your vehicle fixed up to your specific state’s standards for restored or revived salvage vehicles. That number will be the absolute minimum needed to get the car back on the road. Knowing these costs will help you budget or show you the car is not worth your time and money.
Estimate your insurance.
Just as you need to plan out the repairs, you need to have a discussion with your insurance provider to determine just how much this specific car would cost to insure if it were able to achieve rebuilt status, if even possible. This will help you plan your budget or cancel the plan altogether.
Have experience with wrenching.
For two primary reasons, it’s a good idea to have experience with working on vehicles before you buy a car with a salvage title. One, if you’re familiar with working on cars, you should know when to walk away from a disaster waiting to happen. Two, if you just bought that disaster, you can assist in its repairs to get it back in shape.
Make sure you have a backup car/plan.
If you have to buy a car with a salvage title, we recommend that you do not completely rely on it. Unfortunately, that might not be possible, as one of the primary reasons somebody would buy a salvage car is because of the price and affordability.
However, if you can, have a second vehicle that can save you in case the salvage car fails. If you can’t afford to have two vehicles, make sure you can use public transportation, a bicycle, or ridesharing to live your life.
Know it will be harder to resell.
A market for previously salvaged cars does exist, but it’s a fraction of the regular used car market. Salvage cars have questionable pasts, so many people will not even consider them as a real option. Because of this, reselling a car with a restored salvage vehicle could be more difficult, could take more time, and will not be able to get you the same resale value as a car that has not been slapped with a salvage title.
Car Bibles answers your burning questions!
Q. How do I know if the car has a salvage title?
A. A salvage title will be marked salvage on the literal title paper. Depending on the state, the paper might also be a different color. For example, salvage and rebuilt titles are orange in Michigan.
Q. Where can you buy salvage cars?
A. The primary place you will find unrestored salvage cars will be auto auctions, where the insurance companies directly sell the car. You might also find salvage cars at certain dealerships. If you find a private seller with a salvage car, it is likely because they bought the salvage vehicle from a different source.
Q. Are salvage titles more difficult to insure?
A. In general, salvage titles might cause some hiccups when trying to insure a vehicle. If a car has been rebuilt or restored after it was totaled, insurance companies might not accept the salvage vehicle, or it might only offer specific types of insurance coverage. This is because the insurance company views the vehicle as a greater risk to cover.
Q. Are salvage titles more expensive to insure?
A. Because the vehicle has had issues and potentially damage that has already been repaired in the past, restored salvage vehicles will almost certainly be more expensive to insure. Insurance companies will not insure a salvage vehicle that has not been restored or rebuilt.
Video on Buying Salvage Cars
Car Bibles’ editors understand that not everyone is a text-based learner. For those kinesthetic people out there, we have your back with a video discussing buying salvage cars.
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