Looking to buy a salvage title car

Tiny
CHRISBAILEY92
  • MEMBER
  • 2008 CHEVROLET MALIBU
  • AUTOMATIC
  • 110,000 MILES
Are all salvage title cars bad?
Monday, March 11th, 2019 AT 7:34 PM

3 Replies

Tiny
JACOBANDNICKOLAS
  • MECHANIC
  • 108,414 POSTS
Welcome to 2CarPros.

That is a hard question to answer. However, what I need you to keep in mind is this. For it to be considered "totaled" that means the cost of repairs have exceeded a predetermined dollar value set by an insurance company. For example, if the book value is $10,000.00 and it will cost more than $8,000.00 to fix, it is considered totaled. Are they all bad? If rules are followed, it will cost more to fix them than the car is worth.

I hope this answers your question. If you are considering the purchase of a vehicle that has been reconstructed, then I suggest finding a reliable mechanic that can inspect the vehicle repairs that have been done to confirm it was done right and the vehicle is safe. Remember, buyer beware. Confirm that everything was done correctly if the vehicle has already been fixed.

Let me know if I can help in any way.

Joe
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Monday, March 11th, 2019 AT 9:08 PM
Tiny
CARADIODOC
  • MECHANIC
  • 33,763 POSTS
My friend has a body shop where he specializes in rebuilding one and two-year-old smashed Dodge trucks. He has a regular customer base of about fifty farmers in his area who tell them what they want, then he goes out and finds it to rebuild for them. I have a 2014 Ram 1500 that we had to run to MO to get. It was two years old at the time, with 4,200 miles. Total cost to buy and repair was well under half of what it cost when new. He has close to 200 cars and trucks he has done for people in the area over the last fifteen years.

With trucks you can tell if there had been frame damage. Cars can be trickier to tell because what looks like painted-over wrinkled sheet metal can actually be the way the car was made to produce crumple zones. Look for anything that doesn't fit right or has a screw missing. A good example is a windshield washer fluid reservoir with a mounting hole that doesn't line up with the hole in the sheet metal. There shouldn't be hoses or steel lines with unusual kinks or bends in them. Look at the paint on the rocker boxes under the doors. At this mileage there are going to be pits in it from small rocks being thrown up. If the paint looks new, that area was damaged and repaired. Crash damage to those rocker boxes almost always included door damage. Rebuilding door openings can be quite tedious and time-consuming to get everything to fit correctly.

Look for factory rust proofing or sound deadener over spray that is missing in one area, and look for an area that has purposely been covered up with too much rust proofing. A light coat of rustproofing can be a sign of a conscientious job, but too much can be a sign there is something to hide.

Look at the gaps around the doors, hood, and trunk to see if they're even. Check if the front edge of a door sticks out further than the rear edge of the front fender. Paint on GM cars can be real hard to match and blend, so some minor shading differences between adjacent panels can be expected, but you should have to look closely to see them. Those are not necessarily a sign of poor workmanship.

It's unusual for a professional to rebuild a car with the mileage you listed. It costs them the same in labor and paint to rebuild a car with 110,000 miles as one with 10,000, so they aren't going to want to put that much effort into a car that won't be worth much when they're done. If they're going to spend $5,000.00, for example, to buy a car and to repair it, do you want it to be worth $6,000.00 when they're done, or $16,000.00? On the other hand, it will only take a little cosmetic damage for an insurance company to total such a high-mileage car, so the damage might not have been that serious. Check the local dealership ads to see what a similar model and year is going for with the same mileage, then expect to pay roughly 3/4 that amount for one with a salvage title. When it comes time for you to resell the car, the same applies. You'll get less for it with the salvage title. If you're like me and you drive a car until it falls apart, then drive it a few more years before letting the salvage yard have it, you don't care if it has a salvage title at that point. You'll get the same dollars for it either way, so why not start out by buying it for less?

I'd be leery of buying a rebuilt car from a private party or do-it-yourselfer. Professionals do these types of repairs every day for car owners, and they often buy some to work on for themselves when times are slow. Unlike when selling a used car, in most states a repaired salvage-title car has to be inspected before it can be licensed, and here in Wisconsin, the State Patrol does that, and they get real picky. An officer comes to my friend's body shop periodically to inspect two or three cars on the same day. It is not uncommon for him to spend half a day there. Vehicles will not pass inspection if even one factory-installed light bulb doesn't work. When it fails an inspection, they have to pay again for another one later after everything has been corrected. To avoid that cost, they make real sure everything has been repaired properly the first time.

As a point of interest, when working for a very nice family-owned new-car dealership, I often filled in slow times by performing safety inspections on trade-in cars. It was interesting to learn that it is quite legal to sell a car with non-functioning safety systems, as long as that is disclosed on the window sticker, and that is the part that can get a dealer in trouble. For example, on cars of low value, especially Fords, it is real common here to find sluggish parking brake cables that don't like to release. Lubricating them is not acceptable because we know from experience those cars will come back on a tow truck with a brake locked up. It is legal and better to cut the cable and render the entire parking brake system inoperative, again, as long as it is disclosed. That cable would be replaced on a newer model car with a higher value, but if this is an inspection on a salvage-title rebuilt car, that parking brake has to function properly. In this way, for people who don't know what to look for in a used car, there's a pretty good chance the salvage-title rebuilder is going to be better than a non-damaged, high-mileage used car, even though the salvage-title car will cost less.

You can also find repaired cars for sale that were not totaled, and as such, will not be listed with "salvage" on the title. Those do not have to be inspected, so you're taking a bigger risk.

If the seller will not let you take the car for a substantial test-drive or for an independent inspection, walk away and let someone else buy it. On the test-drive, the car should not pull consistently to one side at highway speed, and the steering wheel should be straight. GM front-wheel-drive cars are the only brand where a major handling problem can be introduced if an inexperienced person removes the front cross member with the engine and transmission, and doesn't reinstall it back in the correct orientation. That will cause a really severe loss of handling that a basic alignment won't solve. When this happens, the car will dart unexpectedly to one side or the other when driving over very small bumps in the road. The fix is easy enough if you know what to do.

Let go of the steering wheel when driving over a railroad crossing. The first thing to observe is the car should continue driving reasonably straight. It shouldn't head for the ditch or oncoming traffic. Second, watch how the steering wheel reacts. When the front of the car bounces up and down, the steering wheel should remain straight. If it rotates left and right, then comes back to center, while the car keeps going straight, there are issues that need to be corrected, and that can't be done without an alignment computer and the knowledge to know what to look for.

Check with your insurance company about salvage cars too. I've heard that some will not write a policy for them, but that might vary from one state to another.

My friend's business is basically a really big hobby shop. As such, he can come and go as he pleases, and he is free to travel three or four states away to buy cars and parts. He bills his jobs out by the job, not specifically by the time he spends on it. To replace large sheet metal parts, he will buy an entire "clip" from a salvage yard, then spend hours drilling out spot welds to break the assembly down to the individual sheet metal panels he wants. That takes a lot of time but he pays much less for the parts, so his finished products cost less. When these rebuilds are done at the large body shops, they have to bill for every hour someone works on the vehicle. To save time, they order all new sheet metal parts which costs more. They'll get the job done faster, but with a substantially higher parts cost. This second way of doing it is how insurance adjusters estimate the cost to repair a car and whether it is feasible to do so, or the car is considered "totaled". Because of this difference, a car may be considered "not worth repair" at a large body shop or insurance company, while it can be financially feasible through a small shop with less overhead.

To answer your question, as you can see, there's a lot of things to consider to determine if a car is even worth repairing. No one around here would rebuild a car with this many miles because there just isn't enough value in it. They'll spend substantially more than they can sell the car for. For this reason, I'm worried the work on this car was done by an inexperienced owner, and while they could have the very best of intentions, I learned a lot of what can go wrong from my friend pointing them out to me.
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Monday, March 11th, 2019 AT 9:43 PM
Tiny
HARRY P
  • MECHANIC
  • 2,292 POSTS
I would tend to agree with Doc's assessment. But I would add the suggestion that when you get a car that you're considering buying inspected, take it to a frame repair shop. They'll know exactly what to look for with respect to frame and body problems better than any general mechanic's shop. Also, if the work is done correctly and using quality parts, the gaps between fenders and doors will not vary. It will be consistent from top to bottom and side to side, and be the same on both sides of the car. After market parts tend to have slight variance in gaps, although it's usually acceptable and safe. But a major variance (maybe the gap is 1/4 inch at one end and 3/4 inch on the other) is indicative of something else being amiss.

I know. This is an information overload and is probably about as clear as mud. Get the car inspected at a frame repair shop.
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Tuesday, March 12th, 2019 AT 5:51 AM

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