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My Automotive FAQ - Buying a car with a "Salvage Title"

So you've found a beautiful car and want to buy it, but the owner says it has a salvage title.  What's up with that?

More Than a Fender Bender.   "Salvage" titles are given to vehicles when they are wrecked "beyond repair" in an accident.   In this situation, "beyond repair" typically means that the cost to repair the car exceeds the value of the car.   When this is the case, the insurance company typically declares the vehicle as a "total" loss, and pays the owner of the car the cash value of the car. 

The Process.  The vehicle is then sold by the insurance company to a wrecking yard or other interested party.   In the eyes of the state vehicle registration departments, the car is "totaled".  At this point, a new type of title, called a "salvage title", is issued for the vehicle, and this is what the buyer of the wrecked car gets from the state.  This practice of issues "salvage titles" varies by state-to-state, and is done to warn potential buyers of the auto that it was once "totaled".  

The fact is that time and money can cure most anything, including "totaled" cars.  It's not uncommon to for a repair shop to build one complete car take two totaled cars, one crumpled in the front, the other in the rear.  They do this by cutting the bad portions off each car, and then welding the cars together.  But don't be fooled.  The resulting car is, most likely, not work what you're about to pay for it.   Other causes of a "salvage" title are (a) stolen cars recovered after the owner is paid-off (typically after 30 days), and (b) flood-victims. 

Homework Required.   If you really want the car, you need to do some homework.  

1.   Determine precisely why the car was switched to a "salvage" title.  How the car was damaged in the accident - get all the details and perhaps the police report.
2.   Carefully inspect the car for obvious signs of the repair.
3.   Take the car to a
competent body shop that specialized in frame repairs.  They are best suited to give you an accurate assessment on the condition and quality of the repair. 
4.   Make your decision.

Net Net.  The car may look fine, but you have no idea how well it will hold-up over tomorrow, next week, next month, after six months, next year.   Depending upon the extent of the original damage and the quality of the repairs, It may (a) never hold an alignment, (b) cat-walk down the street, and (c) drive like a slug (i.e. handle like crap!).   But, to the untrained eye, it'll look like a regular car.  Additionally, check with your bank to ensure they will finance a car with a salvage title.  And, also ask your insurance agent about limitations in insuring a "salvaged" car.    

You my think this is a lot of work to determine whether you want to buy the car or not.  But not if you've been through the wringers after buying a repaired total before the invention of the "salvage title".  While I, personally, have never found myself in this predicament, I have witnessed the pain and agony experienced by others who were bitten by a "salvaged" car they had bought.  In general, my recommendation is to avoid buying a "salvaged" car for any use other than for parts.

As always, good luck, and happy motoring.

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