The Used Car You Are Looking To Buy May Have Been Totaled

Most states prevent totaled cars from re-entering the market without a salvage license, so consumers know that the used car they are looking to buy was once a complete wreck.

What bugs dealers and consumer advocates is that the tangle of state laws makes it possible to move a vehicle across state lines and apply for a “clean” title that makes no mention of its checkered past. The fact that some states don’t even require salvage titles stretches the loophole even wider.

The practice has become so prevalent, particularly in states affected by the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes, that Congress is considering a measure that would establish a national database of totaled vehicles. Before you buy a used car, especially in the south, first ask your mechanic to give it a once-over. — CAREY GREENBERG-BERGER

Driving through loopholes [LA Times]
(Photo: fatal Cleopatra)


Edit Your Comment

  1. zolielo says:

    Also make sure that the car you want is emission legal in the state you reside in. Not all autos are 50 state legal…

  2. logie-al says:

    This has been going on for years. But never on this scale. One of my co-workers rebuilds totaled vehicles. I have seen the before and after photos of some of the vehicles he’s rebuilt and it’s enough to make your blood curl. But he’s one of the few who takes the time to do it right. He said that vehicles that are fresh water damaged can be repaired with little to no trouble. However, the vehicles that get salt water flood, kiss them goodbye. Yet these often get rebuilt anyway. Many vehicles can be rebuilt to be very reliable vehicles even after suffering flood damage but only if done correctly. This usually means the engine rebuilt, all electrical replaced, new or sanitized interior, new airbags, etc. This is where shady rebuilders make problems for all rebuilders. The shady ones don’t do everything that needs to be done. Such as not replacing the electrical, or not sanitizing the interior etc. They charge for it, but don’t do the work. Typical scam, but this involves people’s vehicles. The rebuilder might have checked to see if everything was working before he sold it, but if he didn’t replace the wiring then in a few months to years, the wiring will corrode, then fail. Try troubleshooting that. So yes, there does need to be some regulation, but it just means the price of used cars is going to go up.

  3. Sudonum says:

    Most states, California included, allow the registration of used cars that didn’t originally meet their emission standards. I believe the standard in CA is 7500 miles to be considered used. I know this because I ordered a car from another state with CA emissions in order to register it there. I had a hard time getting the car ordered from another state with the CA package, but finally got it done.

  4. zolielo says:

    You are right Sudonum, it can be done but is often not work the trouble. The main problem, is when a car just cannot be “imported” into California because of the too high standards of CARB.

    I do not want to go too far off topic, but just wanted to give the tangential tip to be careful with emissions as well for a con artist could…

  5. zolielo says:

    worth the trouble. do’h

  6. shdwsclan says:

    Well, i mean, a car thats flooded…aka water damage is not really totalled…..

    But what I dont get is why would people repair totaled vehicles, is it not more profitable to completely chop it for parts…

  7. Buran says:

    @shdwsclan: They’re not repairing them. Just claiming they have. They buy them dirt cheap due to the salvage title, then get a clean title issued and sell their dirt-cheap car for normal prices.

  8. Buran says:

    @zolielo: CARB standards aren’t too high, just different. If we had uniform standards across all states (apply the cleanest rules across all states) there wouldn’t be an issue. But the government, which these days doesn’t care about the environment, has failed to do any such thing, so we have “45-state-legal” cars and “50-state-legal” cars.

  9. thrillhouse says:

    yeah, there’s this thing called “Car-Fax”…

  10. mac-phisto says:

    @thrillhouse: car-fax is an excellent service, but it’s not going to work all the time. carfax would pick up a flood car if it was claimed as an insurance “total loss”, but not if i pulled a car out of a lake & took it to the junk yard. that junk dealer would sell the car based on its “clean title” & you could end up driving it tomorrow.

    there’s ways to tell the damage – gma did a great expo on this last year. there’s some good tips for picking up flood damage:

  11. chimmike says:


    if a vehicle is taken to a salvage yard, it has to be titled as a salvage or total loss, it’s the law. Car-fax will pick that up.

    Another myth from what I’ve seen: you can’t just take a salvage title from one state and automatically get a ‘clean’ title in another state. It has to be rebuilt to that state’s standards, and only then it will get a ‘rebuilt’ title. It is by no means a ‘clean’ title, but it allows the vehicle to be registered and driven.

    Anyways, once again it’s Caveat Emptor. Stupid consumers bring problems upon themselves. It’s not the government’s job to hold their hand………you can’t expect the government to reach out and protect you as a consumer by doing everything they possibly can, but get pissed at the gov’t when it exerts more control over other stuff.

  12. TechnoDestructo says:


    They’re not too high, but the way they’re administered makes it difficult or impossible for people to use a lot of aftermarket parts. Even if they’d put out the same or less emissions than the OEM parts, if your parts aren’t CARB-approved you can get in trouble.

    Just removing all restriction on the machinery and only looking at what comes out of it would have as much environmental benefit, without near the cost to the motorist.

  13. Jiminy Christmas says:

    I signed up for CARFAX a couple of years ago when I was shopping for a used car. I found one I liked, ran its VIN through through CARFAX and it came back with no flags. I bought the car and felt like I was getting a great deal on it, as I paid $2000 less than book value. Several weeks later I got the title in the mail and it had a big ol’ SALVAGE stamp on it. So, CARFAX proved to be totally f@#^$n’ useless.

    The moral of this story, which I learned the hard way: When you are considering buying a used car insist on seeing an original copy of the title.

  14. mac-phisto says:

    @chimmike: i know more than one junk dealer that does not follow that law. they buy titles, not scrap. a clean title, no matter how wrecked a car is, brings big money in the junk world. there’s a guy down the street from me that buys wrecked bikes & reconditions them…he always starts with a “clean title” junked frame & then frankensteins parts off of other wrecked bikes, internet, etc.

    also, title classifications vary from state to state & some states have no “rebuilt” classification, or their salvage classification only applies in certain cases (some states only require it for extensive frame damage). this is how junk dealers skirt the law. they can retitle from state to state to wash a title from it’s salvage or rebuilt designation.