What catches are inherent in a salvage-title vehicle in California?
April 1, 2006 9:11 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking at used pickup trucks in California. Some of the listings on craigslist are described as having salvage titles. What precisely does this mean? Would a service like Carfax tell me why the vehicle has a salvage title? If this isn't something to be avoided at all costs, what should I ask a mechanic to look for in checking out the truck?

Seemingly, the salvage title is something to be avoided. Or is it, if the truck appears to operate well?

Non-rationally, I like the body style of the mid-nineties trucks more than the more recent models; that preference added to a desire for a manual transmission has me looking through a limited pool. It seems like 10-20% of such trucks listed on craigslist have salvage titles.
posted by mhespenheide to Travel & Transportation around California (10 answers total)
Salvage means that the vehicle was written off by the insurance company (usually because it was in an accident and the repair cost was more than the worth of the truck). Sometimes body shops will fix a salvage and sell it, but it's never a good idea to buy one since the frame is almost certainly weakened.

Frame damage is one of the big reasons to write off a truck. When the frame is bent back, it could be fatigued, but that's not something a mechanic can quantify. In extreme cases, the vehicle will actually be put together by welding pieces of two frames into one, which IS easy to spot and DEFINITELY should be avoided. For myself, I wouldn't buy a salvage for regular use because there's just too much that could be inherently unsafe about it.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 9:17 AM on April 1, 2006

If it just has a salvage title because it was stolen, the car probably has no major structural damage, and will work fine.

That being said, you absolutely will not be able to re-sell it to anyone other than people you know. No one wants to buy a salvage title for the second time.
posted by maxreax at 9:23 AM on April 1, 2006

Yes, Carfax will tell you that it has a salvage title. (I used to look at a lot of Carfax reports for severely fire-damaged vehicles when I worked in the product liability field of law.)

When a vehicle has a salvage title, but appears to operate well, it's a clue that it has been significantly rebuilt. If I recall correctly, many cars with salvage titles are taken to Mexico, rebuilt, and sold on the market there.

The concern you should have about the salvage title is that some states do not allow you to title the vehicle there after a salvage title has been issued for that vehicle. See this definition of salvage title that I found on the Carfax site:

Salvage Title - A Salvage Title is issued on a vehicle damaged to the extent that the cost of repairing the vehicle for safe operation exceeds its fair market value; or a vehicle that has been declared a Total Loss by an insurer or other state or jurisdiction. Some states treat Junk titles the same as Salvage but the majority use this title to indicate that a vehicle is not road worthy and cannot be titled again in that state. The following ten States also use Salvage titles to identify stolen vehicles - AZ, FL, GA, IL, MN, NJ, NM, NY, OK and OR.
posted by jayder at 9:24 AM on April 1, 2006

I wonder if some of these trucks aren't water damaged vehicles coming from Katrina?
posted by LarryC at 9:40 AM on April 1, 2006

Yea, I'm betting a lot of them are from the hurricane damaged areas. In my state several news stations ran stories about buying a used car after January because there was a good chance it was coming out of the hurricane zone. Be careful!
posted by 45moore45 at 10:29 AM on April 1, 2006

Seemingly, the salvage title is something to be avoided. Or is it, if the truck appears to operate well?

Looks can be deceiving. Personally, I'd avoid any salvage title like the plague unless I knew exactly why it was written off. ST's are often used by insurance companies to dissuade owners from trying to buy back their vehicles + having cash paid after an accident. If I knew that a vehicle had been in an accident that resulted in extensive cosmetic damage that was restricted to a small area of the car, and the car was already 10-15 years old, then I might get the vehicle despite the ST.

Once you buy a vehicle with a salvage title, you should basically assume that you will never, ever be able to sell it to anyone ever again. With that in mind, the vehicle must:
  • Be something you really need (or want, I suppose).
  • Be repairable (or already repaired by someone who knows what they're doing... i.e., not the previous owner)
  • Have direct evidence of what the accident was that caused it to be a ST.
  • Dirt cheap.

posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:40 AM on April 1, 2006

I heard a great story on NPR about cars with salvage titles.

Apparently, Congress was all set to introduce a tracking system that would prevent flood-damaged cars from being laundered through states that didn't ask about what had happened to the car. At the last minute, an exception to the law was pushed through, thus allowing flood-damaged cars to get clean titles in these states, and be resold to unsuspecting buyers.
posted by Brian James at 10:44 AM on April 1, 2006

Oh, forgot to add: in my books, there are some accidents that are simply not-recoverable. Sea-water floods are one of them. Too much salt in sensitive places that will never get properly cleaned. The other type of accident would be one that causes frame damage. Once your frame is out of whack, throw away the car. While it is possible to straighten the frame, it will never be as structurally sound. If the car is something rare/special, you can ignore all this advice, because anyone buying a rare/special car should already have the mindset that they're going to be throwing tons of money into their giant moving money pit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:46 AM on April 1, 2006

Carfax, in my experience, doesn't tell you what you all need to know. We recently did a vehicle search on Carfax for a car we were considering. It will tell you it carries a salvage title. What it doesn't tell you is why. Carfax's canned explanation is that the car sustained severe damage. This is generally based on the insurance company declaring the car to be totaled. However, if you have ever dealt with insurance companies, you quickly learn that a car being declared a total does not necessarily mean it is unrepairable (or even undriveable) All it really means is that the cost of repairing the damage exceeds xx% of what the insurance company determines is the car's value (and, surprise, many insurance companies use their own value estimates. NOT Kelly Blue Book or what not)
Sooo...a used car can be in an accident, be totally repairable, yet still be declared totaled and issued a salvage title.

Here in Indiana, once a car with a salvage title has been repaired and inspected, it is issued a new, clean title.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:57 AM on April 1, 2006

Years ago I purchased a salvage car. The car, a Turbo Supra--looked fantastic. New paint, tires, shocks, etc. The price was low enough I didn't have to get a loan.

Worst mistake ever. Car literally fell apart from day one. Major engine problems. Electrical problems. It overheated.

My girlfriend a few years later had the same experience.

Craigslist is full of sellers who will tell you "the seats were stolen" "I replaced the bumper myself" Let a professional tell you if the car is structurally sound. It is difficult to sell a salvaged car.

Also: Check with your insurance company before you buy salvaged. Full coverage may not be available and liability may cost more--which might make up the cost difference in and of itself.
posted by vaportrail at 4:57 PM on April 1, 2006

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