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Salvage-Title Cars: What They Are and How to Avoid Them

by Steve Dearborn

Car experts and consumer advocates have been making a lot of noise lately about the name salvage-title car. For most of us, this term is a head scratcher. What’s a salvage title? What does does it mean for you as potential consumer? Is it really so bad? And if so, how can you avoid salvage-title to avoid being ripped off?

What is a Salvage-Title?

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), a salvage-title is “a title brand that identifies vehicles that have sustained major damages or have been deemed a total loss.” Basically, it’s a totally demolished car that someone has fixed up to sell to you for a profit. Dealers are legally required to make note of this in the paperwork. If a deal looks too snazzy, it’s worth looking over the documentation to check for language indicating serious damage.

So What’s the Problem?

It’s a totaled car. At some point in the past, this car cost more to fix than it was worth.There’s obviously something fishy going on if a seller is putting it back on the market after such a dire diagnosis. After all, if fixing the car was worth it, wouldn’t the owner have done so?

If you’re not a dedicated car repair aficionado—and if you’re looking this up, you’re probably not—you don’t want to fool with a salvaged vehicle. This is an automobile that’s been through some serious trauma, and only the experts should be fooling with it. Cosmetic repairs don't work. Salvaged cars are often unsafe and financially dicey.

How to Avoid Salvage Titles

People sometimes sell salvage-title cars without informing consumers. This is illegal, but it does happen. A faulty contract can create big trouble. So what are some good ways to avoid buying a salvage-title car? How will you know that sweet deal isn’t laced with poison? Here are some basics to keep yourself one step ahead of predatory salesmen.

  • Get Documentation. The best way to know what you’re getting is by getting documentation. Automobile sellers are required to provide buyers lots of paperwork. Demand to see this paperwork ahead of time. If anything looks off, look elsewhere.

  • Trust your Instincts. If a deal seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is. You’re going to be driving this vehicle day in and day out possibly for several years. You’ll be putting your family and fellow motorists in danger if you buy a dangerous dud. Before rushing into a deal, have a good think about what your seller is saying.

  • Consult the DMV. DMVs vary by state. Check your local department. Staff there will have insider knowledge regarding common scams and frequent rip-off artists. They will be able to recognize the signs of a bad deal and advise you.

  • Shop From Reputable Dealers. Buy from trusted salesmen. Ask your friends about any dodgy sales they’ve been part of. Try to avoid shopping from social media or other freely accessible websites. Your best bet is to shop from actual dealerships. The higher price  you might pay to a dealer is partially for the piece of mind knowing you’ve properly purchased a decent car with a paper trail.

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