Buying a Salvage Title Car in California [What to Know]

Buying a Salvage Title Car in California

This post is about buying a salvage title car in California. But first, let me start by saying that the Internet has changed things. You don’t need to go to 7-Eleven for an AutoTrader to buy a used car anymore. Nowadays, you can use websites such as Craigslist and eBay to easily find used cars for sale.

There are even more ways to buy used cars; however, there are also more dangers now. Seeing lots of damaged cars for sale online is not rare. Sometimes, you buy a salvage title car without the seller disclosing it.

It could also be that the seller disclosed the salvage condition, but you just went ahead and bought it anyway since it was cheap. So, what is it like to have a salvage title vehicle in CA? Or does it mean that when a car is salvage title, it is unusable? The truth is that it is not always bad, and there could be positives to buying a salvage car in California.

What Does Salvage Title Mean in California?

In California, the DMV says a car is “salvage” when it has been wrecked or damaged so much that fixing it costs more than the car’s value. If that happens, the insurance company won’t fix it and will give the owner money instead, usually the car’s value before the accident. Such a car will get a salvage title from the CA DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles).

Let’s say a 2007 Honda Civic gets into an accident and needs $10,000 to be fixed. The value of the car was $4,000 before the accident. Usually, the insurance company will give the owner $4,000 and not fix the car because it costs too much to repair.

Often, these cars have a lot of damage. Even if they get fixed, they might not last long or work well. This also often leads to the problem of not finding insurance.

What to Do After Buying a Salvage Title Car in California

In CA, you can try to clean a salvage title. However, you will be given a branded title known as “Rebuilt Title”. You can follow these steps to get a rebuilt title.

  1. Submit a completed Application for Title or Registration (REG 343) form, signed by the current vehicle owner(s).
  2. Provide proof of ownership, such as a Bill of Sale (REG 135) form or a Vehicle/Vessel Transfer and Reassignment (REG 262) form from a licensed dismantler. Ensure you include the dismantler’s vehicle acquisition number.
  3. Submit a Verification of Vehicle (REG 31) form or a CHP Certificate of Inspection (CHP 97C) form.
  4. Obtain and submit brake and light adjustment certificates to ensure the vehicle’s safety features are operational.
  5. Pay the applicable fees for the registration process.
  6. Depending on your vehicle and situation, you may also need the following:
    • An Application for Salvage Certificate or Nonrepairable Vehicle Certificate (REG 488C).
    • A Vehicle/Vessel Transfer and Reassignment (REG 262) form. You can request this form from the DMV by calling 1-800-777-0133.
    • A Statement of Facts (REG 256) form.
    • A Declaration of Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW)/Combined Gross Vehicle Weight (CGW) (REG 4008) form.
    • A Permanent Trailer Identification (PTI) Application and Certification (REG 4017) form.
    • To surrender existing license plates.
    • A smog certification.
    • A weight certificate from a California Certified Public Weighmaster (if your vehicle is a pickup or truck).

Here is a comprehensive guide you can follow to clear a salvage title car in California.

How a Salvage Car is Sold in California

After the insurance company pays the car owner, they own the car. They tell the DMV it’s salvage, get a special paper, and take it to a salvage yard. They figure out what to do with it next.

Usually, the car gets sold at an auction to a dealer—someone who takes it apart, fixes it or sells it overseas. Some buy these cars for parts, and others fix them up to sell again.

It is okay to sell a salvage car, but you must disclose to the buyer that it is salvage. In California, if you do not inform the buyer, you might get sued or have to pay a penalty.

Registering a Salvage Car Might Be a Problem

For someone who buys a salvage car and fixes it up, there’s more to do. Getting the car registered at the DMV is another challenge. When you buy a salvage car, you can’t register it right away. First, it needs to pass CA rebuilt car inspections.

You have to show the car’s title, application for registration, and proof you own it. Then, the car gets checked by the California Highway Patrol and a licensed auto expert checks the brakes and lights.

If the car fails the inspections, you can’t register it until you fix it. Sometimes people try to change the title illegally to remove the “salvage” label. They send these cars to other states, get new titles, and sell them to people who do not know the car’s real condition. The reason for this possibility is that there is no complete national system at the DMV. Even though there is a system to stop fraud, not all states use it.

Some states find it too expensive. however, when you buy a car like that, there’s a big chance of problems. If all states used the system, buyers would probably be safer.

Some services can check if a car was in an accident by using its VIN (Vehicle Identification Number), but they can be expensive. The NICB has a free VIN check tool to see if a car is salvage. Carfax is another service that gives a detailed history report for a fee.

Not All Salvage Vehicles Are Bad

When buying a salvage title car in California, you should be able to fix it up and get it registered with the DMV. Depending on the level of salvage, the vehicle would typically sell cheaper. For example, a 2016 Lexus IS 250 F Sport with 19,563 miles could sell for $18,999. The car’s actual value is about $$43,325.

Sometimes, a salvage car might have only a bit of damage, but they are still called salvage. Cars can get marked as salvage even if they were not in an accident. For example, let’s say a car is near a fire (even if it didn’t touch the flames). If some smoke gets on the car’s paint, it is considered salvage.

Body shops typically ask insurance companies for more money to fix cars than they would from regular customers. This can make the insurance company decide to call a car salvage, which means many cars that could be fixed end up in the salvage yard.

Insurance companies focus on numbers. They want to lose as little money as possible. If it is better for them to call a car salvage, they will do it. This is especially true now because salvage cars are worth more due to the Internet.

Some dealers even travel across the U.S., buy cars at auctions, and send them overseas. Some auctions directly sell and ship salvage cars to other countries. In different countries, there is no concept of a salvage car. They send them over, fix them up, and sell them. Even with the expenses, these dealers make money because they can sell the cars at regular prices.

Is Buying a Salvage Title Car Worth it in California?

The problem with buying a salvage car is that it might look like a good deal, but when you see the repair bills, you change your mind. It is almost better to just get a new car.

That is not to say that it might not be a good idea if you are good at fixing things. If you can repair cars yourself, you could end up with a nice car without spending too much. It should work well depending on the level of damage.

Many people plan to buy salvage cars and they know how to handle it. Not every salvage deal is against the law, dangerous, or deceitful.

Many people sell things on Craigslist to make money fast though. Buying a salvage title car in California can be risky and depends on luck. If you want to get a damaged car, make sure it works well, is officially registered, and comes from a reliable source.

Read also: States Not to Buy a Used Car


Junk/Revived Salvage Vehicles. CA DMV

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