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What are RED FLAGS when buying a salvage car?

I live in Wisconsin, a state with no inspection of any kind. We are in the market for a newer car between 2002 and 2008. We are only looking to spend up to about $6000.

We have family in Portland and are planning to buy the car on the west coast due to less salt.

I noticed that Portland has lots of totaled or salvage Toyotas. I have a theory that if we find a car that has just been bumped or crunched a small bit in the front back or rear, then we can get a good deal.

I figure, if the body is a little crunchy or missing a bumper–no biggey because I am a Wisconsinite.

Is this a completely hair-brained idea? Does a crunch bumper mean destroyed frame that will fall apart in one year? If you have any horror, succes or red flag stories please share. Thanks!

Ask to see the “before repairs were made pictures”. They exist and reputable dealers will show them to you. Make sure the air bag system is functioning (if you care about air bags) On many “rebuilds” they are not replaced. When YOU are finished with it, however long or short a period that may be, the “salvage title” car will have zero resale value in todays market. The market is also flooded with repo’s, you might call your bank and inquire if THEY have any “deals”…

The biggest red flag is the word “salvage.”

Substitute “junk” and you’re not far off. Cars have to suffer enough damage, from a crash, a flood, or some other catastrophe, to be given a salvage title.

It means an insurance company had determined the cost to repair the car is more than the car is worth, and insurance companies know more about this than you and I. Does this sound like a little “bumper crunch” to you?

Stay away from anything with a salvage title. It could easily become a bottomless money pit, no matter how good it looks on the surface.

I agree. a red flag pops up when I hear the word salvage, too. Look for a Chevy Prizm, I think 02 was the last year they were made. What you are getting, however, is not a Chevy, but a Toyota under the hood. Just like the Vibe is a rebadged Matrix, the Prizm is a rebadged Corolla

A bump or crunch will not result in a salvaged car. To be salvaged it must first sustain 70% or more of its value in damage. Then people with various skills buy them and fix or patch it together and sell again. Outside of the obvious red flag of a salvage title, things like bad welds, improper alignment or unable to align it, uneven tire wear, and on and on. If you have to ask, then you need to take it to someone who can inspect it. Sometimes the cars are literally cut in half and two different cars welded together again. Now if it was a flood salvage, run, run run.

I don’t have a problem with a salvage title vehicle at all, depending.
My last salvage vehicle went another 7 years/180k miles after I got whacked and when finally disposed of it was not due to anything caused by the wreck.

Several points.
One is not to overpay for one. Figure 40-50% off of the book value and do not plan on recouping much money when you finally decide to get rid of it.

Two is that being declared a “total” may not mean anything that bad. Many cars are routinely totalled over sheet metal and airbag issues. Being declared a “total” is often more a monetary issue than a structural one.

It always helps if one can see some pics of the vehicle before it was repaired but this is often not practical.
In the event pics are not available, what I would recommend is having the car taken to a reputable body shop and have a few areas inspected.
One is examination of the subframes for any damage, inspection of the strut towers for any damage (noticeable by paint cracking or flaking), and inspection of the floor pan for any buckling or damage (also noticeable by paint or undercoat cracking, etc.).
If the vehicle has been on the road for a year or so as a salvage then inspect the tire tread to make sure that it’s wearing evenly.

Hope that helps in your decision.

(Regarding my previous salvage Subaru, you should have seen it before I repaired it. A broadside at 40 MPH against a full size Blazer with an apparent blind driver at the wheel). I found another junked Subaru (mechanicals), cut off the entire front end from the windshield forward, and swapped it over to mine. A complete paint job and voila. Good to go.)

OK4450 pretty well covers it. Don’t pay any more than 50% of low book and plan on driving it until it dies.

Where I’m at, the best deals by far are the vehicles totaled by hail damage. you can buy a perfectly running safe car that has 700 large hail dimples in the body work.
Once the glass is replaced the car can run another 10 years and 150k miles.

Some say the vehicle even handles better at high speed, kind of like a golf ball…

OK, you obviously know lots about cars, you can check them out and know what you’re getting into. Here’s someone talking about doing it to save money, buying a car 2000 miles away. Very high risk in my opinion, to be avoided by someone who has to ask.

You’re exactly right. No way should someone buy a salvage vehicle from long distance.
I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the OP may have had intentions of traveling there for some reason and decided to give one of them a shot.

In retrospect, they mention a “lot of salvage Toyotas in Portland”.
Why would Portland be a collecting point for salvage Toyotas?
Any possibiity that a large dealer, etc. there could have glommed onto a bunch of them from New Orleans and they were written off as flood cars?
If so, a flood car would be a no-no for sure! What do you think?

I had a former colleague who bought salvage title vehicles. I noticed that she had a severe rusting problem with an Oldsmobile Cutlass that was several years newer than the 1978 Oldsmobile that I still drive. At the time, I didn’t have a rust problem with my Oldsmobile that I bought new. Her car seemed to rust as badly as some of the Chrysler products I remember from the late 1950’s. I often wondered if in the process of the repair that the rustproofing was either skepped or it’s hard to rustproof a repaired vehicle as well as it is done at the factory. I would worry about the rusting issue on a salvage car in an area where the roads are heavily salted in the winter.

Damage is not always repaired correctly. How lucky are you? If you feel lucky, just remember how many times you buy a lottery ticket and compare it to the times that you won. Did you ever see the commercial about the car battery with the installer saying “we’ll make it fit”? It was a funny/scary one. It really applies to body work.

Yea, that ‘lot of salvage Toyotas’ seems odd. I’d sure want to know why…

Perfect, measured, professional, experienced, and valuable response ok4450, thanks for the reply. The percentage off of book value was particularly useful, as a guideline. I was planning to go with cash and not pay more than 40-30% of book value. Chances are we’ll just grab something like an '02 Prizm or work extra hours and get something a little bit newer. I’ve rehabbed a subaru, a protege, a toyota pickup, and a spitfire and sold them all at a modest profit…but, truth be told, I don’t think I am looking to get into the world of cutting vehicles in half, at this point.

Your subaru project does, however, sound like fun when I have a private garage and extra dollars. Your inspection points, ok4450, sound like good things to look at on any car.

Best, Chris

The Subaru is long gone now. It was sold some years back and actually, I wished that I still had it.
I put 180k miles on it after repairing it, never an accident related problem or irregular tire wear, and it had a shade under 300k miles when sold.