Talk me out of buying a salvage title Honda Insight
April 28, 2013 7:36 AM   Subscribe

There is a mechanic in a city nearby who restores and sells (and maintains) first-generation Honda Insights. Most of the cars his shop produces have a salvage title. He offers exclusive repair and maintenance service to purchasers. I've done a lot of reading and talking to people about this car—a trusted coworker owns one of his restorations—and I'm pretty much convinced that I want what seems to be one of the most over-engineered, fuel-efficient, cool little cars ever made. So what am I missing?

I have to convince my uncle, the ultimate stodgy shopper, as he will help me with the funding. He's been a Honda owner since the 80's and appreciates the build and design quality of the manufacturer (to a fault even; he owns a 2011 Civic). He's really not going to like that the car I'm thinking of buying has been salvaged. Why? What should I be looking out for regarding a salvage title?

The only negative press I can find on this mechanic is that he refuses business from people who bought their Insights elsewhere. Every single soul who's testified online about having bought a car from him sings his praises. All of the reviews I can find of the first-generation Insight are glowing (from owners) and cautiously optimistic (trade reviews from 2001).

This question from 2011 is almost identical to mine, but I think the additional information about the particular shop I'm considering (and insectosaurus' friend was considering) might abate the 'salvage NO! weakened frame!' responses some. I trust you'll correct me gently, should I be mistaken. Thanks!
posted by carsonb to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total)
Maybe it's safe, maybe it isn't. How do you know? Ask a mechanic? Wait, the mechanic is the guy selling it to you. You need to get any used vehicle inspected by someone who isn't the person who wants you to buy it. If the Honda Insight guru has a problem with that, then walk away.
posted by thelonius at 7:48 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've driven an Insight and the one drawback is cabin noise. Very noisy.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:50 AM on April 28, 2013

Well, it will be important to know why it has a salvage title. For instance, if a car is stolen and the owner is paid out for it and then it's recovered, it can be branded as salvage, and that wouldn't correlate to frame damage or anything else. At the opposite end of the spectrum it could be a flood damaged car with stinky carpets and recurring, nagging electrical issues.

Certainly get a Carfax and a thorough inspection of any car you buy, salvage title or no.
posted by ftm at 7:50 AM on April 28, 2013

Be very, very careful with salvage titles. My uncle (who is a mechanic) says he wouldn't go within a mile of one, and would never support buying one even from an otherwise great car. When I was younger and stupid, I thought about getting one because I could get a Prius that normally cost $$$ for $-$$. He took me on a test drive of one and pointed out all the things that could go horribly well as a number of inconsistencies in the seller's story.

Equally, be wary of the story that you hear about why the title is salvage. Perhaps the mechanic got the story from whoever he bought the wrecked vehicle from, but when I've called about salvage titled vehicles I have without fail got some version of "Oh, the car was stolen/broken into and they damaged the speakers, so the car got a salvage title. Otherwise it is in pristine condition, promise!" Insurance companies only give a car a salvage title if really, really bad things happen. My car was once stolen, I was paid for it, the insurance company recovered it and sold it with a clean title (despite having to do some fixing of it).

If you feel very, very strongly about getting a salvage title (and don't mind exposing yourself, your friends and family, and to a much lessor extent the driving public around you to the risk), ask for before and after pictures. My mechanic in Los Angeles does something similar with unique cars from the era he particularly likes. When he sells the car, he has a bunch of photos documenting the car in its "before" salvage condition and after. These photos help you authenticate the story you're being told. If someone isn't willing to do that, or doesn't think it is a great idea once you tell them about it, I'd be very cautious.
posted by arnicae at 8:16 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I bought a car with a salvage title, because I was convinced it hadn't been badly damaged (scrapped because of a minor accident when it was already old and not very valuable) and had been properly repaired. I was right on both counts, and it's been a good car for several years. However, it was an extra-big PITA when I moved from Ohio to Pennsylvania because PA requires that salvage-titled vehicles being brought into the state pass an "enhanced" safety inspection, during which mechanics go over the vehicle with a fine-toothed comb, checking things that are ignored during routine annual inspections. Very few garages are certified to do these enhanced inspections, and the fee for the inspection is relatively steep. And then there's the fact that no matter how great the car really is, it will always be worth less because it's got a salvage title. So take all that into consideration -- extra red tape, permanently reduced resale value.
posted by jon1270 at 8:25 AM on April 28, 2013

It's a hybrid, right? Rechargeable batteries wear out. The #1 thing I'd be asking about is the future lifetime of the battery.
posted by Nelson at 8:28 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not all repaired salvages are disasters waiting to happen. We have had three, bought and repaired by papa penguin, which ran like champs. Our young son has logged 50k miles on one of them so far. So yes, buyer beware, but don't rule them out.
posted by mama penguin at 8:38 AM on April 28, 2013

Response by poster: These are all great points so far, thanks! Totally the sorts of thing my uncle would bring up.

Thankfully, I think I have decent answers for most of them.

- Trusted (current) mechanic who has confirmed they can inspect it for me.
- Right now I drive an S-10; a silent cabin is not a priority, especially compared to fuel efficiency.
- The demand for this arrangement with the mechanic is high, and there is a waiting list. Each completed car is already sold by the time it's done. I believe the current arrangement is to visit the lot and pick a vehicle out from the pre-reconditioned inventory, then the shop proceeds with the restoration ASAP.
- No plans to move any time soon.
- The S-10 would be the first vehicle I haven't driven until it died, and thankfully I have an eager buyer lined up for it whenever I'm ready to sell. Point being, if I were to choose this Insight, it would be for keeps.
- Mr. Mechanic also sells battery packs.
posted by carsonb at 8:39 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been driving a 2008 Ford Focus salvage title that I bought 2 years ago and have put 80k miles on it. It's probably the best purchasing decision I made. I would have been $12k and instead it was $6,500. mama penguin highlights that not all salvage titles are the same. Here are some things to consider:

What kind of accident was it in? In my case, the car was rolled on gravel and had pings and dents in the passenger side and roof. The windshield had been replaced. But there was no frame or engine compartment damage. I would not mess with anything that was in a front end collision or anything that damaged the frame. The ideal scenario is something with hail damage. Some mechanics will fix the damage, but then it will cost more. If you're willing to live with cosmetic imperfections, you can save a lot of money.

The other issue is the reputation of the mechanic. Does he service large companies or fleets? Mine had many companies that buy from him. His depended upon his good reputation.

And yes, take it to a mechanic you know, preferably in another area in case they are friends.

But do not rule it out out of hand, especially if you are trying to save money.
posted by SpicyMustard at 9:01 AM on April 28, 2013

I own a 2001 Insight. 150k miles.

several suggestions for things to do and things to look for:

plastic 'plating' as in door handles (interior) comes off and is razor blade sharp. check yours. each costs $30 or so to replace.

rear wheel skirts are held in place with 1/4 turn fasteners. very prone to fall off.
some bulbs hard to replace.

air-directing plastic under the chassis is prone to damage and removal.

hatchback hold up air cylinders are an issue. noisy. (i put a dish towel in the door seam to force tighter fit and provide quiet.

no really good place for a 4 speaker setup for radio. there are cavities behind the seats, but they are hard to find, access and install speakers in. much rattle. i much prefer an after market radio.

if you have heater problems, check the thermostat in the radiator first. do not be talked into a 1000 dollar head gasket job. (my engine was beautiful inside during the repair. sadly, it didn't work and the real solution was $30 worth of thermostat. i am a professional troubleshooter, too, damn it, and i concurred with the diagnosis. long story.)

shock absorbers are not available after market. they are $150-200 each x 4.

for a real improvement in ride, ditch the low-rolling resistance standard tires for the largest that will fit and not impede steering. makes the thing quieter, handle like a sports car, and get less gas mileage.. 4 or 5 MPG.

expect it to run poorly in the winter. mileage drops a lot. works best in warm weather and loves flat terrain.

all units are manual transmission from that era, i think. clutch, when it goes, looks like a bitch to replace.

good car. might sell mine, though. (honda gave me a new battery at 100k. otherwise, $3600 for a replacement! gotta love honda.) has been extremely reliable and uses no oil, even at 150k.
posted by FauxScot at 11:47 AM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Insurance companies only give a car a salvage title if really, really bad things happen.

This isn't really true. Their definition of "horrible thing" can really vary. If a car is stolen in pretty much any way and recovered it's instantly salvage. There was a post on AskMe recently by someone who bought a prius dirt cheap with like, 40 miles on the ODO because it was stolen off the lot. Instant salvage. My bosses garage flooded(not in the hurricane sandy sense, in the broken pipe sense) and some water got in the car because the sunroof was open or something. Fucked up the interior on an otherwise around 2 year old car with almost no miles. Salvage. It also seems that any damage to a car that costs too much is instantly totaled, and a buyback of a totaled car = salvage.

So, plausibly, this guy could be buying good shells with blown engines, or otherwise failed/abused/damaged drivetrains and swapping in new parts or parts from say, a car that was rear-ended and destroyed? this doesn't seem terrible in concept to me. And sort of provides a plausible backstory in my head for

Most of the cars his shop produces have a salvage title.

Which is a bit weird, but what i think some people here are missing is that they aren't making any more of these old insights.

- The demand for this arrangement with the mechanic is high, and there is a waiting list. Each completed car is already sold by the time it's done. I believe the current arrangement is to visit the lot and pick a vehicle out from the pre-reconditioned inventory, then the shop proceeds with the restoration ASAP.

This, above all else is an encouragement to me if this is a general community consensus. This guy probably has a fairly solid rep in the specific online community for these cars. And if you hadn't already, i'd look into that. Maybe this guy is super well liked on forums about this car, maybe he's contentious and a vocal group of people think he's a dong, maybe everyone who knows anything hates him and thinks he just exists to grift n00bs who want an insight. find out.

I also think it's interesting that you get to inspect the car before they repair it. What condition are these cars in? are the front ends smashed in? are they shells with no engine or drivetrain? were they simply totalled out because of failed batteries or some other electrical/relatively minor when it comes to the integrity of the car type issue? I think that part is the most important, and what i'd want to know.

And this is coming from someone who constantly tries to get good deals on things in end-run ways like this, and who owns basically nothing new except for socks and underwear. I'd be cautiously optimistic about this concept, not immediately poo-pooing it like some people here. I would however research the crap out of it.

Oh, and i think it hasn't been directly said in the thread yet, but do not do this if you don't plan on keeping the car until it's completely worn out, destroyed, and not worth repairing. You will never, ever get a decent amount of money selling it. In fact, i bet the instant you buy it from this guy you wouldn't be able to sell it to anyone else for close to whatever he's charging. This wouldn't stop me, but i also like to use things until they don't work for me anymore or i have some concrete "i need feature X to do XYZ" reason. Not just replace them for the sake of it. If you think you're going to need a car with more seats in a few years or something, don't do this unless you plan on having more than one car. Definitely follow that thought-path to conclusion.
posted by emptythought at 12:45 PM on April 28, 2013

I believe the current arrangement is to visit the lot and pick a vehicle out from the pre-reconditioned inventory, then the shop proceeds with the restoration ASAP.

This is actually a Good Thing and the only way in which I'd proceed with this deal. I'd want to go see the car in its 'before' state, and basically make a list of everything that appears to be wrong with it, and hear how the mechanic is planning on fixing it. And then when you go to take delivery, I'd be damn sure to go through that list again and make sure that it's all fixed. And if something visible isn't fixed when you go to get it, I'd be really, really nervous and would probably be backing out of the deal. (So figure out what your options to recover deposits, etc. are if you're not satisfied on delivery.) If there are visible things missed, assume everything you can't see is completely screwed. That would be my attitude anyway.

But I'd definitely second the suggestion to go on some specialist forums and see what this guy's reputation is in the community devoted to the car. See if you can come up with some references yourself — i.e. don't ask the guy for references, but see if you can find some people who own this car without him steering you to them. Talk to them, in person if possible, and see what they have to say about the process and whether or not they'd do it again.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:22 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am not sure if this is a risk, since you're in California, but there were a LOT of storm damages cars from Hurricane Sandy.
posted by inertia at 6:54 PM on April 28, 2013

I've heard anecdotal reports of Sandy-damaged cars being shipped out west for resale. Another reason to get a CarFax.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 8:00 PM on April 28, 2013

Confused about this. The original Insight was a niche, extremely low volume car -- Honda only sold 10,000 of the things in the entire country. There aren't dozens if them lying around in any one place with salvage titles, there aren't tons of cheap spare parts available from the junkyard. Not a lot of mechanics know what to do with one. It is hard for me to imagine an entire business built around selling them, especially since there are new low-cost hybrids like the Prius C.
posted by miyabo at 8:58 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

New owner of a 2000 MT Insight wtih 138,000 miles, here !

The G1 Insight is an exquisite example of Honda engineering.

The old trope about minor damage resulting in salvage titles is moderately common for G1 Insights, because of the aluminum frame. Get a CarFax. Airbag deployment is a dealbreaker.

This was on my mind when I shopped private-sale Insights, but I kept encountering the worst of the salvage-title guys: bought from auction, poorly repaired, advertised on Craigslist by mumbling Russians who wouldn't give you the VIN number. One mechanic I had inspect one wrote "UNSAFE TO DRIVE" in big letters on his report.

You are looking at the best case: low salvage costs + high enthusiast interest + specialized mechanic.

Emptythought's comments above are good: read what people have to say on InsightCentral and EcoModder about this mechanic. A handful of guys in the Insight enthusiast market are awesome (Eli at Bumblebee Batteries, for example) and a handful are jackasses.
posted by Kakkerlak at 11:49 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I bought my 06 silver MT (something around 110k on the odo) back in December, and couldn't be happier. Three months in and I think... Price, overall performance, specific engineering, gas mileage (GAS MILEAGE, DRIVING IN LOS ANGELES ON STREETS, 46MPG!), mechanic, all of it has been super awesome! Definitely beyond expectation.
posted by carsonb at 8:55 PM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: And I only miss the bed of my pickup truck a little bit.
posted by carsonb at 8:56 PM on February 22, 2014

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