Can You Drive a Car With a Salvage Title?

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Rachel Bodine graduated from college with a BA in English. She has since worked as a Feature Writer in the insurance industry and gained a deep knowledge of state and countrywide insurance laws and rates. Her research and writing focus on helping readers understand their insurance coverage and how to find savings. Her expert advice on insurance has been featured on sites like PhotoEnforced, All...

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Leslie Kasperowicz holds a BA in Social Sciences from the University of Winnipeg. She spent several years as a Farmers Insurance CSR, gaining a solid understanding of insurance products including home, life, auto, and commercial and working directly with insurance customers to understand their needs. She has since used that knowledge in her more than ten years as a writer, largely in the insurance...

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Reviewed by Leslie Kasperowicz
Farmers CSR for 4 Years

UPDATED: Jul 13, 2021

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What You Should Know

  • You can sell a salvaged vehicle at DMV-licensed salvage pool, rebuilder, automobile auction, or automobile wrecking company
  • Getting a Certificate of Inspection will give you permission to drive a car with a salvage title
  • Before you purchase a salvaged vehicle, check with your state if they allow repair on branded title vehicles

What is a salvage title on a car? When a car is wrecked to the point where it will cost more money to repair than the car is worth, insurers then brand it a salvaged vehicle. In auto insurance terms, this is what’s known as a “total loss vehicle.” 

If your car has been given this red mark, there’s a chance it’ll be impossible to obtain salvage insurance for the vehicle or legally drive it. 

But that’s not always the case.

If you’re wondering—can I drive a car with a salvage title—the answer to that depends on your state and the structural integrity of your motor vehicle. In some states, you might be able to fix it and obtain a “rebuilt” or “revived” title. 

Here’s what you need to know about salvage vehicles. 

What is a Salvaged Vehicle? 

When you think of a totaled car, the first image that might come to mind would be a vehicle that’s clearly undrivable and beyond repair. But insurance companies have a different image.   

A salvaged or totaled label is more closely tied to the type of damages incurred and the total cost to repair the vehicle. Generally speaking, if the repair cost of the car surpasses the car’s actual value, the insurance company will report that to the state DMV who will then give the car a salvage title. And this title will stay with the vehicle for the rest of its life so as to protect a hypothetical future owner or insurer. 

The specifics of what’s considered “totaled” depends on your state laws. Some states will deem a car salvaged if the repair costs are half of the vehicle’s pre-crash value, whereas other states won’t declare a total loss unless damages are 75% of the total pre-crash value. 

Per Car and Driver, the range is typically between 60% and 90% of the car’s actual worth. Because of this, it’s important that you review your state’s laws before attempting to purchase, fix, or sell a salvaged vehicle. 

Collisions aren’t the only reason why a vehicle may be given a salvage title or branded title. There are several other potential causes, including: 

  • Total loss – A vehicle that has been damaged to the extent that repairing it (not including paint) would exceed 65% of fair market value. 
  • Flood damage – According to the Nevada DMV: “A vehicle that has been submerged in water to a point that the level of the water is higher than the door sill of the vehicle and the water has entered the passenger, trunk or engine compartment of the vehicle and has come into contact with the electrical system of the vehicle; or a vehicle that is part of a total loss settlement resulting from water damage.” 
  • Non-repairable – A vehicle that’s sole value is as a source for parts and scrap metal or that has been burnt beyond restoration. If given this “junk title,” there is no legal option to repair it. 
  • Hail damage – Like flood damage, depending on the state, some vehicles may be designated salvaged if the hail damage is severe enough. 
  • Theft – If a vehicle is stolen and missing for a significant period, the insurance provider  will eventually pay for the vehicle. At that point, if the vehicle is later discovered, the insurance company can sell it under a salvage title in several states. 
  • Vandalism – If a vehicle has been vandalized, spray painted, or set ablaze, it could receive a salvage title if enough damage is done.   

An Example of a Vehicle with a Salvaged Title 

Let’s say you’re driving your 10-year-old Honda Civic on a rainy day. Along your drive, the car hydroplanes, causing you to run into and over a curb, severely damaging the carriage and frontside of the vehicle. 

Fortunately, you have comprehensive liability insurance, so the vehicle is fully covered. All that’s left to do then is file the claim and wait for the insurance adjuster to inspect the vehicle for damages. 

After the inspection is completed, the insurance company determines that the Civic has a Kelly Blue Book value of $6,000. And the costs to repair the broken axle and front bumper damage are $4,500. So, the cost to repair the vehicle would be 75% of what the car was worth previous to the crash. 

In this case, the auto insurance provider would most likely decide that the vehicle wasn’t worth fixing. So, they’d reach out to the DMV to register it as a salvage title vehicle. 

Despite not being in a serious collision, your car is still considered a total loss.

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Options for a Salvaged Vehicle

Over the past century, laws have developed surrounding vehicle ownership. To promote fairness and consumer safety, vehicle owners are legally obligated to disclose past damages that vehicle has incurred. These requirements protect purchasers from buying a defective and unsafe vehicle from an unscrupulous dealer. 

So, if you retain your vehicle after it’s been labeled salvaged, you typically have one of two options:

  1. You can sell it to a DMV-licensed salvage pool, rebuilder, automobile auction, or automobile wrecking company. But be careful, the selling a car with a salvage title incorrectly can result in felony charges. You must disclose in writing that the vehicle is a salvage car. 
  2. You can repair the vehicle (depending on the severity of the damages), restoring it to a safe and drivable condition. If you’re wondering how to get a salvage title cleared, this is one of the best options. 

How To Change Your Salvaged Title 

When a car is given a salvage title, most states will outlaw driving the vehicle and disallow insurers from providing insurance for it. However, depending on where you live, there may be steps you can take to fix it and then obtain a rebuilt title. According to the California DMV: 

“A Revived Junk Vehicle is a vehicle that was previously reported to DMV as dismantled (by an individual or dismantler) but it has been restored to good condition so you can drive it again. If your junk vehicle has been revived, you must register the vehicle again.”

So, what steps must you take to restore your vehicle? Again, the answer to that question is contingent upon your state of residence. Regardless of your location, some general steps include: 

  • Fix the vehicle – The car must undergo a total vehicle restoration before anything else happens. Per Nevada’s DMV,2 “Garages, body shops and rebuilders must repair vehicles to the common standards published and applied in the automotive repair industry. Air bags and seat belts must be repaired to the standards set in federal law. The business must keep records of the repair including any identifying information of parts.”
  • Apply for a Certificate of Inspection – After the reconstruction is complete, the vehicle needs to receive a Certificate of Inspection from a registered garage, licensed body shop, or licensed rebuilder. After, the vehicle then needs to be taken to a DMV inspection station to finish the Certificate of Inspection. If the vehicle passes, the inspector may give the vehicle a decal that indicates it’s safe to sell or operate.
  • File for rebuilt title – Upon passing, you will then need to re-register the rebuilt vehicle under its revived label. For example, in California, a rebuilt salvage vehicle owner needs to provide:
  • Apply for insurance – After the vehicle has been inspected and then legally registered into the system, you’ll need to once more obtain insurance for the car. To do that, an insurance agent must also perform a vehicle inspection. Remember that not all insurance carriers are willing to insure a restored car. You may not be able to ever receive full coverage on it, but in several states, you can obtain minimum car insurance coverage.  

Is it Worth Purchasing a Salvage-Title Car? 

The answer to this depends on three key factors: 

  1. Whether it is legal in your state of residence
  2. Whether the car is insurable
  3. Your comfort levels driving and owning a previously totaled vehicle. 

A salvaged car can be an opportunity to purchase a car cheaply. According to Edmunds: “Depending on the vehicle, a salvage-title car can sell anywhere from about 20 percent to 40 percent less than the same vehicle that has a clean title.”  

To minimize your risks of purchasing a car with a checkered past, be sure to take the following steps: 

  • Confirm that your state allows salvaged vehicles to be restored – There’s no point in purchasing a salvaged car if your state won’t allow you to fix and then drive it or if your insurer won’t cover it. Do your due diligence before you even consider buying such a vehicle. 
  • Have the vehicle inspected – If you’re thinking about purchasing a branded title or salvage title car, be sure to first take it to a trustworthy mechanic for a safety inspection. They can see whether the repairs were done properly while discovering potential problems that may make purchasing cost prohibitive. 
  • Ask for a copy of the repair estimate – The original repair estimate will let you see the extent of the vehicle’s damage and the repairs required to bring it to a drivable state. 
  • Only purchase form a reputable dealer – Look for a salvage seller who has a track record of successfully selling salvage-title cars that are safe and reliable. 

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Insure Your Restored Car

A car that is deemed salvage isn’t automatically relegated to the scrap heaps. It depends on the total damages, your state of residence, and your willingness to pay for necessary repairs. 

If you do restore the vehicle, it will need to be insured. But finding an insurance provider willing to insure a once-salvaged car can be difficult—at least, on your own.  

At 4AutoInsurance, we can match you with insurers who are willing and able to insure your ride. We offer a free auto insurance comparison so that you can find the right provider and policy. Have a restored car you want insured? Get your free quote today!

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