Salvage Titles

By Zac Estrada
Last Updated 01/19/2017

Did you find the perfect car and read over the CARFAX Vehicle History Report only to find it carries a salvage title? Your heart sinks, obviously.

A salvage title is a scarlet letter that can turn any car, no matter how pristine, into Hester Prynne. Despite this, some buyers take advantage of cars with salvage titles for a far lower price than if it had a clean title. Should you?

What is a Salvage Title?

A salvage title is issued to a vehicle when an insurance company determines that the cost to repair it after a crash approaches (or is more than) the value of the vehicle. This can come from any number of issues, such as a crash, flood damage, fire, or even something minor like an accidental air bag deployment or minor fender bender.

Terms vary from state to state, so some cars are branded just "salvage," whereas others can get a "flood" or more specific term as to the reason the car's status changed.

Here are things to consider, though: A flooded car is never going to be in good shape again. Water corrodes and carpets and upholsteries get mildew and mold. A flood is a sure way to ruin basically every part of the car, and not know about it for long periods of time.

For the same reason, fire-damaged vehicles are hit-or-miss, too. Even in cases of fires contained to a relatively small area, such as the dashboard or some peripheral motor, the heat could have affected other electrical systems in the car and make them not work as advertised.

Older cars especially are at risk for being salvaged because insurance companies typically require new parts for things such as headlights, bumpers and body panels. The price of these parts can quickly add up and easily exceed the value of the car when labor is added in. If the parts affected in a collision are not structurally vital or expensive safety items such as air bags, then it's reasonable that a car could be safe to use.

Repaired Cars with Salvage Titles

No matter how polished, a car with a salvage title won't be as good as one with a clean title. This is where you need to find out exactly the extent of the damage and how the vehicle was repaired. You also need to have the vehicle inspected and find service records. This will ensure as much as possible that the vehicle is, in fact, roadworthy, the repairs were done correctly using the right parts and that the mileage hasn't been tampered with. It's not just for the sake of making sure all of the equipment works. Cars that have salvage titles can be dangerous if repaired by someone who cuts corners or does not know what they're doing.

Every used car needs an inspection and records before you buy, but with a salvage-titled car, you need to be extra careful.

Should You Buy?

It depends on everything above. A repairable salvage-titled vehicle isn't necessarily a terrible thing, if it's all been repaired correctly and with genuine, manufacturer-approved parts.

In plenty of cases, there's little to be gained when buying a car with salvage title, especially when there are lots of other cars like it with a clean title. It could be harder to insure, not come with any kind of warranty and lead to other hidden repairs. More importantly, it could also put you in danger.

Get a sense of the vehicle's history and start asking questions. With a salvage title, you need to become like a good investigative reporter.

Protecting Yourself from Salvage Title Fraud

1. Ask to see the title document for the car you are considering. The following words all indicate a salvage vehicle: totaled, reconditioned, salvaged, junked, rebuilt and warranty returned.

2. Find out if salvage titles in your state are printed on different colored paper. For regulations and wording about salvage titles in your state, check with your local DMV.

3. Check the title document to see if it has been physically altered. If it looks like it has, be extremely wary about purchasing the vehicle.

4. Order a CARFAX Vehicle History Report. We receive data from every U.S. and Canadian motor vehicle agency about cars with salvage titles and we guarantee to show whether or not a car has a salvage title.

5. Take the car for a test drive and get an independent mechanic to inspect it before purchasing.

News and Testimonials

"You could be driving or buying a dangerous vehicle and not even know it. Auto experts estimate that important information has been hidden or altered from documents connected to more than 30,000 vehicles in Illinois and Indiana." – WLS-TV "Eyewitness News"

“After running a CARFAX I learned that the car was originally owned in Virginia where it had sustained severe damage, being hit twice–once in the front and a second time in the rear. Then the car was sold to its second owner in Illinois, where the car got into a third accident and was totaled! This is how I learned about title washing, as the Illinois title was a salvage title, but when the car was transferred to Minnesota a clear title was issued for the vehicle. Had it not been for CARFAX I would have likely bought this car having no idea what had happened to it.” - Tim D.