Salvage Vehicle Title Basics: Salvage Cars, Titles, and More

By: Staff Writer June 27, 2012
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If you're eyeing a particular used car and the description includes "salvage vehicle," give it some thought. This is the red flag of car buying - not necessarily a danger sign, but definitely a warning to proceed with caution.

What Does Having a Salvage Title Mean?

A salvage title indicates that the car, at one point in its history, was classified by an insurance company as a total loss due to:

  • Flood damage
  • Hail damage
  • Car accident damage
  • Vandalism
  • Theft recovery

Total loss is arrived at when a vehicle's total damage exceeds a certain percentage of the car's value (usually around or above 75%). Laws vary by state, but after the car is tagged a total loss the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) then issues it a salvage title (in car-speak, this is known as "vehicle title branding"). This means the salvaged vehicle cannot be driven or registered in its damaged state.

Rebuilding a Salvage Vehicle

Once the vehicle becomes salvage, an auto shop or car hobbyist (or even the original owner) might purchase it with the intent of repairing it. The buyer must then follow stringent repair laws before the car can be inspected. If the salvaged vehicle passes inspection and meets all requirements (these vary by state), the DMV then issues it a new title.

So as to protect unsuspecting buyers, the vehicle's re-salvaged status will be clearly indicated on the title, forever branding it as a rebuilt car. The actual wording used on the title, branding the car as rebuilt, varies by state. Iowa, for example, uses the words "Prior Salvage," while Maryland imprints the title with "Rebuilt from Salvage." Regardless of the exact language, the words will be clearly visible, usually stamped, on the title.

Are Salvage Cars Safe to Purchase?

There is nothing wrong with buying a salvaged auto, provided you avoid purchasing on impulse. You want to make sure there are no hidden damages, resulting in major repair costs three weeks after resuming ownership.

Your best defenses are:

  • Ordering a car history report.
  • Have a certified mechanic inspect the vehicle. Only a trained mechanic's keen eye, for instance, can detect a cracked frame or eventual metal fatigue.

Have you ever re-built a salvage vehicle? Or purchased one? What was your experience?

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