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When a vehicle is declared totaled because the repair costs are too high, that doesn’t mean you can’t fix it or it wasn’t fixed properly.
With new vehicles and even used ones from a dealer being priced out of reach for many Americans, it might be tempting to find cheaper avenues into a new-to-you set of wheels. Such options include a rebuilt or salvaged titled vehicle, whether you’re looking for a daily driver or an affordable project vehicle. Before you pull the trigger on that car with a salvaged or rebuilt title—cheap though it may be—you should ask yourself whether the vehicle is truly safe and roadworthy. After all, aren’t these previously totaled cars we’re talking about? Yes, but the answer depends on the titling rules in a given state.
During our research for this article, we not only examined four big car-purchasing regions (California, New York, Florida, and Detroit), but this writer also pulled from his own first-hand experience as a state vehicle inspector in Virginia. That knowledge is somewhat dated, but it fits within the context because we can point out what to look out for if you want to know whether your potential new-to-you vehicle is roadworthy.
What Declares A Vehicle Salvaged Or Rebuilt?
You should find out exactly how your state defines a salvaged or rebuilt title, but generally speaking these are cars that were declared a total loss due to crash damage, stolen parts, or in some states even enough major parts missing. Someone then bought that vehicle (either the original owner or someone else) and fixed it to meet the requirements for that state as “salvaged” or “rebuilt”; some states have titles for either, and others only list titles as one or the other. This is where it becomes critical to know your state’s criteria for roadworthiness.
The Bare Minimum
The bare minimum, at least among the states researched for this story, is that the lights and brakes work. If airbags were equipped originally from the factory and deployed, they are to be replaced by matching units in “good working order,” and that’s it. It’s this way in California. An additional inspection by the California Highway Patrol is required, but only to ensure the VIN hasn’t been replaced or swapped to another vehicle entirely, and to make sure the vehicle doesn’t have any stolen parts. Other than a smog check for those vehicles that are required in the Golden State, no further inspection is done after the brake, light, and airbag check.
Much Deeper Inspections
Other states go much further, but the assessment is a part of the regular annual vehicle inspection. If you’re in a state that doesn’t require these inspections, they involve checking the vehicle over for roadworthiness through a multipoint inspection. Generally speaking, the inspectors will look at the entire car, including the minimum aspects listed above plus the steering system, suspension, underbody, bumpers, windshield glass, mirrors, exhaust, and occupant safety equipment including door latch operation.
Many of those parts are wear items and have minimum specifications in order to pass inspection. Other requirements are specific to each state, including bumper height, body mounts, window tint, and other items, so you should reach out to your local inspection station to see what’s inspected.
My State Doesn’t Inspect All Of That. Should I Be Worried?
When your state doesn’t go further than checking the lights, brakes, and emissions, and you’re considering a salvaged or rebuilt titled vehicle, we advise you to take it to your local auto tech to get it looked over. (This is sound advice even for used vehicles with clean titles!) If the vehicle owner is hesitant or flat out refuses, walk away; that may be an indication of something wrong.
You can also ask for the vehicle’s history through a VIN check to see why it was declared totaled in the first place. This is a relatively cheap, worthwhile investment if you do this sort of car shopping regularly, and most VIN check services offer a free trial. Again, a “total loss” or “distressed” declaration can be as simple as the vehicle containing stolen parts; it doesn’t necessarily point to any major frame damage from an accident. Some older or rare models with even minor damage can trigger total losses when the repair cost exceeds the value of the car. However, as we mentioned above, we’d still recommend you get any potential purchase checked out.
What If I Want To Inspect It Myself?
If you’re going to do it yourself, you should probably already have the relevant car knowledge to determine the vehicle’s worthiness or value. If you don’t have that knowledge, the obvious advice is to bring along someone who does, along with a jack, jackstands, a wheel chock, a flashlight, torque wrench, a way to remove the lug nuts, a good code reader (one that can read more than just OBD codes), and possibly a long pry bar. The keys are to get underneath the car, poke around its engine bay and trunk, and look for signs of previous damage or repairs.
Here are the areas we’d recommend checking in a car with a salvaged or rebuilt title. Start with the quick stuff: lights, glass, door operation, and seat belts, and make sure the airbag light isn’t on or covered by electrical tape. When you turn the key with the ignition off, the airbag light should be on for a few seconds as it self-tests. Once it passes that, the light will turn off. If it doesn’t or it begins to blink, there’s an issue with the airbags. You won’t know what it is until you get the code, and you’ll either need to set the system to code read mode or use a code reader for OBD-II or CANBUS that can read safety/restraint codes.
Looking Under The Body
Next, lift the car up to where you can get under it and secure it with your jackstands, and chock a wheel to prevent the vehicle from rolling back. Make sure the exhaust doesn’t have any obvious holes, there are no holes or major cracks in the frame or unibody, and the bushings don’t look like they’re about to fall out or, worse, are missing. You won’t be able to determine a car’s “straightness” with the naked eye, but you should be able to see if there’s an obvious bend where there shouldn’t be or buckling on the frame or subframes.
If you really want to know if the exhaust doesn’t have any leaks after a visual inspection, you can take some rags in your hand and push them against the tailpipe while the vehicle is running. If it’s not trying to force your hand away, or a new noise crops up upstream of the tailpipe, there’s a leak in the exhaust system. If it’s a dual outlet (not a true dual exhaust system where no “X “or crossover pipe is used ), have a friend do the same with the other outlet. Technically speaking, this isn’t a proper test, but it works. Just wear heat-resistant or thick gloves to avoid burning your hands.
Front Suspension Check
If you only used one jackstand to get under the car, grab your other one and lift up the opposite side and place the stand so the front of the car is in the air. If you used both on one side, remove and drop the rear on the ground completely. With a friend holding the steering wheel still, try to move the wheels left and right. While you’re doing this, look at the tie rods to see if they move when the tires move. If everything stays still, it’s good to go; otherwise, there’s an issue with the steering system. If you’re testing an older vehicle with either a saginaw or drag link steering system, some play is expected, but it shouldn’t be excessive.
While you’re looking at the front tires, check to see if there are any issues with them. Look for bald spots, cords, and dry rot. Dry rot looks like tiny cracks on the treads and indicates it’s time to replace the tires. Sure, there might be plenty of tread, but that’s a tire destined for failure or air leaks, at best. Another possible tell is the condition of the sidewall, specifically discoloration. If it looks darker, browner, or like it was hit with some sandpaper, that’s a potential indicator the tire was run on very low air or even flat and overstressed the sidewall.
Next, you’ll want to inspect the ball joints. Some come with wear indicators in their grease fittings. Others don’t have indicators or don’t have grease fittings at all and require a proper inspection. To do that, you’ll want to find out how the ball joints are loaded on your vehicle. Now grab that long pry bar, place it under the tire, and lift on the bar as you watch the ball joint. It may move a tiny bit, but the repair industry considers anything over 7/16 inch (around 11mm) bad. If you find it difficult to move the pry bar and look at the joints, get a friend to help.
Choose one wheel to remove, and inspect the front brake. Look for leaks, missing parts, extremely discolored discs, or unevenly worn pads. Any taper on the pads or pads that don’t move freely enough when the brakes are applied is a sign of issues within the caliper. It’s best to inspect the brakes at all four wheels, but if time is an issue, you can do two at opposite corners. For example, if you choose the left front, also do the right rear.
Any major part on the car should have the vehicle’s VIN on it. Bumpers, fenders, hoods, trunks, doors, and catalytic converters typically carry a VIN unless it was replaced by an OEM replacement.
If there are any obvious gouges, scrapes, or glue residue in places where you would normally find a VIN on your part, walk away. If there isn’t and your VIN check didn’t indicate an accident or stolen vehicle recovery but VINs are missing from big items, ask why they were replaced and request receipts. If there is any seller hesitation about receipts or they can’t give an answer on why a part was replaced, walk away. Remember, ignorance of stolen items isn’t an excuse in the eyes of the law. Better to walk away from a purchase than get busted with stolen parts.
Can You Insure A Salvage Or Rebuilt Title Vehicle?
Insurance coverage is a prerequisite for licensing a car, and that applies to vehicles with a salvage or rebuilt title. Here’s where things start getting a bit tougher and, potentially, very expensive for the trade-off of buying a salvage or rebuilt titled vehicle on the cheap. There are a few insurance companies that do allow insurance policies to cover vehicles with those titles, but there are many that specifically will not insure a salvage titled vehicle. For them, the liability of the salvaged vehicle not being in a safe condition and potentially harming you more than a regular vehicle might is just too high. When you do find an insurance policy that works, you’ll find that the coverage is of the bare minimum liability variety and probably more expensive than being fully insured in a new vehicle.
Even having a rebuilt title can make finding insurance difficult, though not impossible. Again, it’s a risk factor of the repairs made and damage missed that some insurance companies don’t want to take. The good news is that a rebuilt titled vehicle is a bit more forgiving than a salvage titled one, so to speak. Even so, you may run into the same issues as a salvage titled vehicle with a rebuilt one in that your policy premium might be higher than the same vehicle with normal title and the coverage is just for liability, at best. Again, that’s if you find an insurance company that will allow a rebuilt vehicle to be covered because there are many that will not take that risk, even in a state that does regular vehicle inspections.
Should You Buy A Salvaged Or Rebuilt Titled Vehicle?
The answer depends on how much legwork and homework you’re willing to do and potentially invest in. If you’re not willing to buy a VIN check, don’t want to pay for an inspection by an auto tech, or don’t feel comfortable with or know anyone capable enough to bring with you to inspect a vehicle yourself, you might want to reconsider buying a salvaged or rebuilt titled vehicle. Your best bet is to wait until you can find the vehicle you want at the price you’re willing to pay at a used or new vehicle dealership you trust.
A salvaged or rebuilt vehicle title isn’t necessarily a sign of a horrible or unsafe car; it just means you need to look into it even closer than you would in a normal vehicle sale. There is gold among the garbage you might associate with rebuilt vehicles. There’s plenty of fool’s gold out there, too, which is why you need to button down a car’s history and look beyond superficial dents, scratches, and anything that’s not indicative of its roadworthiness. Who knows, maybe that salvaged or rebuilt vehicle everyone passed by is better and far more of a deal than others realized.
Best place to buy a Salvage Vehicle?
Auction of course! Most Salvage auctions are not open to public though. But don’t fret. There are some reputable brokers out there that could help you purchase one and hold your hand throughout the process: pre-purchasing advise, auction bidding, payment handling, delivery, paperwork, etc. One of such brokers is RideSafely.com. It’s been in business since 2002 and is a recognized player in the industry. Good luck with your search!