What is a Salvage Title Vehicle?

...and what you need to know if you're thinking about buying one.

What is a salvage title?Capital One


A car with a salvage title can seem like a tempting proposition. To the naked eye, it might appear identical to the much more expensive vehicle right next to it. But the term “salvage” indicates something bad happened, which is why it’s important to know how a car gets that kind of title, and how to spot one in the wild.


“Salvage” is a permanent note on a car’s title that indicates it was once written-off, or “totaled,” by an insurance company, usually because it was involved in a heavy crash, theft, fire, flood, or damaged by some other act of God. Most salvage vehicles have lost more than half of their value, and will always be worth less than one with a clean title.


Most lenders, including Capital One, won’t lend you money to buy a salvage title vehicle, so financing options are limited. Selling a salvage title car is more difficult, too, so you might get stuck with it. And while reconditioned cars may seem to operate well at first, problems might not become apparent until months or years down the road.

While accident damage may seem obvious, a flood, for example, can cause a range of problems from rust in structural components, to mold and mildew in the carpet, seats and headliner, to corrosion in wires and circuitry that gradually results in more and more trips to the mechanic.

Unless you’re a skilled mechanic willing to spend hours diagnosing or repairing problems and you’re willing to pay cash, salvage title vehicles can be a dicey proposition.


The easiest way to spot one is a suspiciously low price. If you compare 10 similar cars and the first nine are in the $15,000 range, but the 10th is $10,000, look a little deeper.

A dealer is required to inform you if there’s a salvage title, and if it’s a private seller, sites like CarFax and AutoCheck show known issues with the car’s permanent record. However, not all states report salvage data to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, so unscrupulous individuals can “wash” a title and erase the car’s black mark. If a vehicle’s history shows it was transferred from one state to another and back again within a short amount of time, beware.

Beyond price and paperwork, look for red flags when you’re physically inspecting the vehicle. The Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, found on every body panel (hood, doors, trunk, etc…) should match the VIN on the dashboard. Look for signs of a previous collision, which can be as subtle as a little paint missing from a bolt. And spend extra time looking in hard-to-reach areas: if the car was in a flood, there will likely be dirt left behind as the water gradually receded.

Finally, ask if you can have the vehicle checked out by your own mechanic. If the answer is no, that’s a serious red flag.


Ultimately, if you’re prepared to accept all of the inherent risks outlined above, then it is possible to find a good deal in a salvage title vehicle. But buying one certainly requires a leap of faith, because when it comes to reconditioned cars, the risks can outweigh the rewards.


This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
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Aaron Miller
As a veteran automotive journalist, I have been fortunate enough to drive some of the most desirable cars on the planet and get to know some of the most important people in the industry. Before joining Capital One, I served as the Cars Editor for a major national website, and covered industry news and analysis for well-known automotive-specific sites. I also wrote feature articles and reviews for niche enthusiast websites. I’ve been obsessed with cars since—literally—before I can remember, with my collection of die-cast and slot cars taking center stage during my formative years. Simply put, for me, working isn’t really “work.”