4 Reasons to Avoid Buying Salvage Title Cars

If you're shopping for a used car, you might find 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."

Salvage title cars may seem like a good deal, since they're often priced 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
Salvage title cars are so problematic that we recommend staying away from them entirely.

If you're determined to buy a car with a salvage title, do so with a cautious eye. We have 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.

If you're determined to buy a car with a salvage title, do so with a cautious eye. We have 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 repair costs exceed a certain percentage of the car's value, an insurer can decide that 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 80% of the car's resale value. Generally, if repair costs plus the car’s scrap value reach or exceed the car's pre-crash value, minus its scrap value, the car will 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.

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. It could be issued for:

  • Flood damage: Floodwaters can severely damage the electrical and mechanical systems of a car, and salt water can rust the undercarriage.
  • Riot damage: Riots often leave burnt and damaged vehicles in their wake. In many cases, the affected cars are declared total losses.
  • Hail or windstorm damage: Major hail storms and tornadoes can severely damage a vehicle, often resulting in a total loss.
  • 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 a policy with collision and comprehensive coverage.

Most insurance companies will write a liability policy for a salvage title car, but some are hesitant to include collision and comprehensive. For one, assigning an accurate value is challenging. According to the 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. 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. Some insurers will not provide coverage to a salvage-title vehicle. 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 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 of the 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 for 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, but 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 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, you should be prepared and informed.

  • Know that 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 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, 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.