What Is a Salvage Title and Should I be Scared to Buy One

Buying a wrecked car can be a great thing if you know what you’re doing

what is a salvage title
Depositphotos

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If you spend as much time fantasy shopping for cars as The Drive’s editors do, you’re bound to start trying to find ways to get the car you want on the cheap. Sure, spending the time to research and shop around can pay off in the end, but what if you’re impatient and want a really good deal? That’s where buying vehicles with salvage titles comes in.

You’ll be in for some repairs and may have a tough time finding a buyer, should you ever want to resell the vehicle, but buying a repairable wreck could be a great way to get into an expensive car for not a whole lot more than the cost of repairs. 

But as with anything, you should do your research to understand exactly what you’re getting into. Salvage titles don’t mean the same thing everywhere you go, nor mean the same thing across the board. And the term is misused at best, so take a moment to figure out the lay of the land with the help of us, your friendly neighborhood The Drive editors. 

We’ll help you on that journey, starting here.

A twisted metal car frame.
Jonathon Klein

Ran when parked, salvage title.

What Is A Salvage Title?

When you see a car that is listed as having a salvage title, know that it has been in a serious accident of some sort. First, the title indicates that the vehicle was damaged at some point and that the damage was considered to be bad enough by the insurance company that it was a total loss. That damage doesn’t necessarily have to be the result of a wreck. It can be the result of a natural disaster, like a flood, or it can be damage caused by theft.

Is It A Bad Idea To Buy A Salvage Title Vehicle?

It’s not always a bad idea, but you’ll need to do your homework. We always recommend getting a pre-purchase inspection, but we demand it for vehicles with salvage titles. Before buying a car with a salvage title, keep in mind:

Financing

You might be willing to take a chance on a car with a salvage title, your bank or credit union might not be so psyched about it. Financial institutions want to first make sure that you’re able to pay off the loan as promised, but they’re also concerned about the value of the thing they’re financing. Salvage title cars can have shaky resale values, which means banks might not get all of their money back if you default

Insurance

Finding an insurance agency to cover your salvage title vehicle isn’t hard, but you’ll need to keep in mind that the value of the vehicle might become an issue if it’s involved in an accident. You should know that your insurance company will most likely ask for at least a rebuilt title before giving a stamp of approval since it indicates that the vehicle is roadworthy and that it has been repaired.

Resale Or Trade-In Value

A vehicle with a salvage title won’t carry the same resale value as one that has a clean title. That’s on top of the fact that you’ll likely have to do some hand-holding with the prospective buyer to cover the vehicle’s condition and backstory.

Vehicle History

You should always be shopping for used vehicles with a big eye on the backstory. Yes, you already know the vehicle’s been in a wreck or that it has been damaged in some way, but how was it maintained prior to that point in time? Did the previous owners maintain it mechanically? A pre-purchase inspection can clear a lot of those questions up for you, and can also give you an idea of how seriously the vehicle was damaged.

Repairing a broken side panel.
Depositphotos

Repairing a broken side panel. 

What’s The Difference Between A Rebuilt And Salvage Title?

Vehicles with salvage titles have been seriously damaged in some way, but vehicles with rebuilt titles have been completely repaired. Different states may define the terms differently or use them interchangeably, but they almost always describe different things. Rebuilt vehicles should be roadworthy and should have had whatever damage repaired. Salvage titles are an intermediary step between the accident, the final repaired vehicle, or the junkyard.

Explanation of Those Terms and Lists 

Get educated.

Vehicle History Report

Vehicle history reports can show you quite a bit of background information on the vehicle you’re about to buy, but they’re not infallible. Most accidents, maintenance records, previous owners, and more are available via a report from a company like Carfax, but they sometimes slip up.

Accident

In this case, we’re using the word accident to describe the damage done to the vehicle. That damage can come from an actual crash or may come from some other unlucky occurrence like theft or flood.

Insurance

Insurance, assuming you’re paying for the good stuff, should pay you for the value of your vehicle in the event that it’s deemed a total loss (see below). Insurance companies will review the value of your vehicle and make a determination on how much money to give you if it’s damaged. 

Total Loss

In some cases, insurers will determine that the costs to fix a vehicle outpace the value of that vehicle. You may have heard this situation referred to as a totaled vehicle or a total loss. That doesn’t mean that the wrecked vehicle doesn’t have any value. It just means that the value is less than the cost of repairs.

Sometimes You Need a Certified Mechanic

As much as The Drive loves to put the "you" in do-it-yourself, we know that not everyone has the proper tools, a safe workspace, the spare time, or the confidence to tackle major automotive repairs. Sometimes, you just need quality repair work performed by professionals you can trust like our partners, the certified mechanics at Goodyear Tire & Service.

Repairing a hood.
Depositphotos

Repairing a hood. 

FAQs About Salvage Title

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!

Q. Are All Cars With Salvage Titles Bad Or Unsafe?

A. They certainly are unsafe if they haven’t been repaired. They are not necessarily bad, but you’ll have to do your homework to make sure you’re buying what you expect and that the repairs that are claimed to have been needed are accurate.

Q. Do Salvage Title Vehicles Make Good Project Cars

A. Assuming you find one with repairable damage that hasn’t completely toasted the frame, yes. If you’re planning on updating or changing a significant portion of the vehicle’s look and body anyway, a salvage title car can give you the savings you need to get the project kicked off right.

Q. Can I Convert A Salvage Title To a Clean Title?

A. Unfortunately, once a salvage title has been applied, it’s there in some form or another forever. What that means is that a rebuilt title can be issued, but the car will always be considered salvaged at some point in its lifetime.

Q. What’s The Best Place To Sell A Salvage Title Car?

A. It’s usually best to have a private sale, as you can get the most for your vehicle from an individual. That said, it can sometimes be hard to sell a vehicle with a salvage title, so you may have better luck hitting a salvage yard or trying a site that focuses on used and damaged vehicles. Keep in mind that there may be restrictions on selling a car with a salvage title, as it has not yet been repaired. Check your local DMV for specifics.

Let’s Talk, Comment Below To Talk With The Drive’s Editors!

We’re here to be expert guides in everything How-To related. Use us, compliment us, yell at us. Comment below and let’s talk! You can also shout at us on Twitter or Instagram, here are our profiles.

Jonathon Klein: Twitter (@jonathon.klein), Instagram (@jonathon_klein)

Tony Markovich: Twitter (@T_Marko), Instagram (@t_marko)

Chris Teague: Twitter (@TeagueDrives), Instagram (@TeagueDrives)

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