Why to Avoid Salvage Cars — and What to Do if You’ve Bought One

Why to Avoid Salvage Cars — and What to Do if You’ve Bought One

If you're in the market for a used car, there's a good chance you'll run across a vehicle that looks great, has low mileage and is selling well below market value. Unfortunately, somewhere in the fine print you'll probably find the words "salvage title." Should you jump on the bargain or keep looking?

Salvage title cars may seem like a good deal, since they're typically priced at 5% to 10% below market value. However, they typically come with a host of red flags.

Potential challenges with salvage title vehicles include:

  • Insurance
  • Financing
  • Quality
  • Safety

Indeed, salvage-title cars are so problematic that we recommend staying away from them entirely. If you're bound and determined to buy one, though, or even just considering it, here's a rundown of the problems you may face, along with advice on the best way to find an insurance policy for your newly rebuilt ride.

Salvage titles explained

If a vehicle is damaged and the repairs exceed a certain percentage of the car's value, an insurer will decide it makes more financial sense to declare it a "total loss" instead of repairing it.

The value percentage that triggers such a totaling varies by state and insurer, but it's typically between 70% and 90% of the car's resale value. (In other words, if repair costs reach or exceed the given percentage, the car will probably be written off as a loss.)

In most states, insurers are legally required to declare a "total loss" once a vehicle reaches a certain value threshold that is set by state law. As an example, in Oklahoma, the threshold is 60% while in Oregon it's 80%.

Once a vehicle is declared a total loss, the insurer will issue a "salvage certificate." At this point, the vehicle can't be registered, driven or sold in its current condition. Most insurance companies sell the vehicle at auction to rebuilders or salvage yards.

However, if the car is rebuilt and passes a state inspection, it will then be issued a title — but the title will indicate the car is a salvage vehicle.

There are a number of reasons a vehicle can be totaled, so a salvage title does not necessarily mean a vehicle was in an accident. Reasons a salvage title is issued:

  • Flood damage: Floodwaters can severely damage the electrical and mechanical systems of a car, and salt water can rust the undercarriage.
  • Riots: Riots often leave burnt or severely damaged vehicles in their wake. In most such cases, the affected cars are totaled and declared total losses.
  • Hail or windstorm damage: Major hail storms and tornadoes can severely damage a vehicle, often resulting in a total-loss designation.
  • Stolen vehicles: Car thieves rarely take good care of the cars they joyride. Even if no accident occurs, that abuse can cause such serious damage that the vehicle is written off.

Insuring a salvage-title car

While it's not impossible to insure a salvage-title vehicle, it may be more difficult to do so — especially if you require full coverage with collision and comprehensive.

Most insurance companies will write a liability policy for a salvage-title car but are often hesitant to include collision and comprehensive. For one, assigning an accurate value to a salvage-title car is challenging. According to Kelley Blue Book (KBB), a salvage-title car is typically worth 20% to 40% less than one with a clean title. If you make a claim on a salvage car, you should be prepared for a much lower "total loss" payout than you might expect from a car that's "clean."

The second reason is safety. Salvage cars often have lurking problems that may or may not be addressed in the process of restoring them to health. Not all rebuilders are honest, and cutting corners to boost profitability is fairly common. Either or both of these realities can result in a vehicle with structural and alignment issues that make it dangerous to drive.

If you are shopping for a salvage title policy, here are a few tips for finding the best coverage:

  • Shop around. Roughly 20% to 30% of insurers will not insure a salvage-title vehicle, so you will need to shop around. Contact your current insurer to see if they offer coverage. If they don't, start shopping.
  • Be prepared for an inspection. Some insurers will require an inspection and appraisal before they will insure a salvage-title car. If you disagree with the appraisal amount, then you should try to negotiate a higher amount or continue shopping for a new policy. Even if an inspection isn't required to insure the vehicle, you may want to get one anyway. Before buying, have a trusted mechanic thoroughly inspect the vehicle.
  • Get a repair estimate. If possible, get the original repair estimate from the rebuilder or the insurance company that totaled the car. This can give your insurance company peace of mind that all damage has been repaired.
  • Prepare to pay more. Pricing will also vary by insurer, but you shouldn't expect a break on your premiums for a salvage car because you got a deal on the purchase price. If anything, the opposite will be true: Some insurance companies will add a surcharge of up to 20% to the policy when insuring a salvage-title vehicle.
  • Consider less-than-full coverage. Consider getting a liability-only policy, which financially protects you if you injure another person or their property. It will not cover the cost to repair your own vehicle. Liability only insurance is much easier (and less expensive) to get with a salvage-title car.

Some final tips

Again, we consider a salvage-title vehicle to be a risky buy that we don't recommend. But if you're ready to take the plunge or already have such a car in your driveway, here are a few final tips:

  • Financing may be difficult. Because it's difficult to value a salvage-title car and there are insurance issues to consider, it can be hard finding a lender. Be prepared to pay cash.
  • Understand local laws. Damage thresholds and inspection requirements vary by state. Research local laws so you know what you're getting into with a salvage-title car.
  • Run the VIN through databases. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System is a federal database designed to limit title fraud. Search the vehicle identification number (VIN) of any vehicle you are considering. Also, you should pull a vehicle-history report for the car through Carfax or AutoCheck; again, you'll just need the VIN.
  • Prepare to buy for life. Salvage-title vehicles can be very difficult to sell. If you purchase one of these, be prepared to drive it until the wheels fall off.

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.