What is a Salvage Car?

This guide explains what a salvage car is, all the synonyms of a salvage car, and takes an in-depth look at what is a salvage car, its prices, removal, buyers, laws, and more

What is a Salvage Car?
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    What is The Definition of a Salvage Car?

    A salvage car is a junk vehicle that has sustained significant damage in a collision, flood, fire, natural disaster, or other event. Salvage vehicles can often be restored and driven on the roads, but insurance companies are allowed to declare a vehicle a total loss if repairs would exceed a certain amount based on that state’s total loss thresholds. Salvage cars are usually bought in bulk at online or public car auctions and rebuilt for sale as cheap used vehicles for those in need.

    The mechanical health of salvage cars can be very good, especially when the vehicle has sustained major body damage as a result of a car accident. When the body is destroyed but the parts are intact and in working order, late model vehicles and other in-demand makes and models have a much higher value than a vehicle that is not in demand or none that has been totally destroyed.

    Most salvage cars have significant damage that can be external or internal depending on the cause. Salvage cars from floods and hurricanes usually have no value in parts because they are ruined by the floodwaters. However, salvage cars from accidents could have body damage and a misshapen frame as extreme as having whole body panels sheered off of the vehicle frame. A salvage car could definitely work when the mechanical components were unaffected and the damage is all or mostly cosmetic. However there are strict regulations in every state as to what condition a salvage car can be in to be allowed back on public roads.

    Synonyms of Salvage Cars

    Salvage cars can be called other names, including scrap car, parts car, damaged car, totaled car, wrecked car, or inoperable car. Rebuilt salvage cars are also called clunkers, beater cars, derelict cars, decrepit cars, and end-of-life vehicles. Many salvage cars are also unregistered cars, lemon cars, or unwanted cars.

    An In-Depth Look at Salvage Cars

    A salvage car is a junk vehicle that has been given salvage status by a state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Salvage vehicles have been damaged in some way and declared a total loss by car insurance companies. It is common for salvage cars to be in mechanical working order but have extensive body damage, but not all salvage cars have reusable parts.

    The definition of a salvage car is much more definitive than other junk car descriptors. Salvaged cars are always totaled cars as deemed by car insurance. All 50 states have title procedures and inspection requirements for salvage cars. A salvage certificate or salvage title is only given when the damaged vehicle is determined to cost more to repair than it is worth by the insurance company based on estimates and the state’s total loss threshold formulas. Damaged vehicles not covered by insurance are often given nonrepairable titles or other junk title status other than salvage vehicle.

    Salvage cars can often be described as wrecked cars, totaled cars, flooded cars, burned cars, and other damaged cars processed through car insurance claims. Salvage cars come in many conditions and some may be in running order but have significant structural or body damage. In-demand salvage cars with working parts are worth more than salvage cars that have been destroyed to the point of having value only as scrap or is only suited for disposal.

    The recycling, disposal, rebuilding, and sale of salvage vehicles is a big portion of the automotive recycling industry which in itself is worth over $35 billion currently. According to the National Salvage Vehicle Reporting Program over 3.5 million salvage vehicles are sold at auction annually. Many of these go to junkyards to be salvaged for parts or are rebuilt and sold as working used vehicles. The regulations for the recycling, disposal, rebuilding, and sale of salvage vehicles is highly regulated by state.


    How does a car become a Salvage Car?

    A car only becomes a salvage car when it is declared a total loss by a car insurance company. There are several incidents that could lead to a car becoming a salvage car. These are:

    • Crashed in vehicle accidents: According to a study by Insurify, about 8.8% of drivers reported a prior at-fault accident for car insurance quotes, showing that at least 20,081,600 vehicles are damaged in vehicle accidents.
    • Flash flooding from storms or spring runoff: Flash flooding can happen anywhere, but it is most common in Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Florida, and California.
    • Flooding from hurricanes: According to Car Fax there were about 350,000 flood damaged salvage cars in Florida and the Carolinas as a result of Hurricane Ian in 2020.
    • Substantial damage from other natural disasters: Other damage that can result from storms and other natural disasters include limbs falling on vehicles, hail damage, and other damage from high winds.
    • Theft and recovery of stripped stolen cars: There were 719,552 cars reported stolen throughout the United States in 2019 per the FBI website.
    • Burned in vehicle fire due to mechanical failure or accident: There were about 174,000 highway vehicle fires reported in 2021 per Statista, and this number does not include vehicle fires on other public roadways at the state, county, and local levels.

    Salvage cars can result from other major and minor catastrophes that are covered by comprehensive insurance. These can include vandalism and other rare incidents. Salvage cars are the result of processed total loss claims by insurance companies.

    Methods of calculating total loss for salvage cars

    A salvage car is one that has been declared a total loss by the car insurance company. The determination of whether the vehicle will be repaired or declared salvage is based on a total loss calculation dictated by the state. There are two total loss methods used to declare salvage cars. The first method is to look at the estimated cost of repairs as a percentage of the vehicle’s fair market value. The total loss threshold percentage is set by the state.

    There are 28 states declaring salvage cars based on a percentage of the fair market value ranging from 60 to 100% total loss thresholds. The most common total loss threshold is 75% which has been adopted by Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Dakota, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Nebraska, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have 70% total loss thresholds. Florida, Missouri, and Oregon are the only three states using an 80% total loss threshold, and only Colorado and Texas use a 100% total loss threshold. Oklahoma uses a 60% threshold, and Nevada has a 65% total loss threshold.

    The second method for determining if a damaged car will be a salvage car is by using the total loss formula. The total loss formula subtracts the salvage value from the fair market value of the vehicle. When this calculation is more than or equal to the estimated cost of repairs the car is declared a total loss. There are 22 states using the total loss formula, including:

    • Alaska
    • Idaho
    • New Jersey
    • Arizona
    • Illinois
    • New Mexico
    • California
    • Maine
    • Pennsylvania
    • Connecticut
    • Massachusetts
    • Rhode Island
    • Delaware
    • Ohio
    • South Dakota
    • Georgia
    • Mississippi
    • Utah
    • Hawaii
    • Montana
    • Vermont
    • Washington

    The total loss formula errs in favor of the insurance companies, while some could argue the same of lower fair market value percentage thresholds. This calculation for determining salvage cars make it easier for car insurance companies to keep more of the premiums paid to them even when claims are fully processed. By having a low total loss threshold and allowing insurance companies to sell the resulting salvage cars those companies are keeping more of your money. This is one reason it is becoming popular for vehicle owners to retain salvage cars rather than allow the insurance company to dispose of them.

    What are common characteristics of Salvage Cars?

    There are 3 common characteristics found on most salvage cars.

    1. Salvage cars have visible damage. Visible damage on salvage cars could include anything from dents to missing panels. Salvage cars that have been in floods may not show this type of damage, but will still show signs of flooding such as silt build up or the beginnings of rust.
    2. Salvage cars have mechanical damage. Almost every salvage vehicle will have some mechanical damage regardless of how it became a salvage car. However, it is possible for there to be enough body damage to total the vehicle without having harmed any of the mechanical systems. Most salvage cars still need at least minor mechanical work on the suspension, brakes and other safety systems.
    3. Salvage cars have a salvage title or salvage certificate. Each state has its own laws about how salvage titles or certificates are issued and when. Salvage cars can also have a rebuilt salvage title when the vehicle has been restored to a safe working condition, but inspections are required to determine safety and emissions before a rebuilt salvage title will be issued for the vehicle. Some states have limits on how many times a salvage title can be transferred.

    It is important to note that salvage cars can be dangerous and unreliable even when they have earned a rebuilt salvage title. Salvage cars can often have mechanical damage not immediately apparent even when examined by a mechanic, such as hairline cracks in the radiator, hoses, and other internal parts. Get the report on any salvage vehicle so that you know what damage it sustained and the risks involved in driving it. Most salvage vehicles should just be recycled.

    Are salvage cars junk cars?

    Yes, salvage cars are junk cars even when they are rebuilt. Salvage cars have been damaged to the point of being totaled by the insurance company. Cars given salvage status after been totaled by insurance will always be titled as salvage or rebuilt salvage for the rest of its life, and such title brands are considered junk cars in almost every state. This means that salvage cars are junk cars even if they have been rebuilt.

    What is a Salvage Car worth?

    How much a salvage car is worth depends on many factors including the type of vehicle, the condition of the vehicle, the estimated cost of repairs, the title status of the vehicle, local demand for salvage vehicles, and whether the title is a salvage certificate or rebuilt salvage title.

    The biggest factor in determining the value of a salvage car is the year, make, and model of the vehicle. There is almost no demand for vehicles from the 80s, 90s, or early 2000s, and these salvage cars will be worth little more than the scrap metal that can be recycled from them regardless of their overall condition. Certain makes and models are in higher demand and therefore bring more money than other types of salvage cars.

    The condition of the salvage car is another determining factor in calculating its value. Salvage cars with repairable damage that can be rebuilt and resold as used cars have more value than vehicles that can only be recycled for scrap. Salvage cars with body and frame damage too significant to repair but have all or most of their valuable parts intact and in working order are worth more to junkyards and salvage yards that make use of or sell used car parts.

    What are the price ranges for salvage cars?

    The price ranges for salvage cars vary greatly depending on the factors described above. What are the most valuable car parts of salvage cars?

    The most valuable car parts of salvage cars are engines, transmissions, drive trains, body, and frame. Engines, transmissions, and other major mechanical components are more valuable when they are in working order and come from a vehicle make and model that is in high demand. When the valuable car parts are not in working order or are not in demand by junkyards, salvage yards, or mechanics they can still be worth a lot of money depending on the make and model. Engines, transmissions, and catalytic converters contain large amounts of recyclable metals, but vary in size and composition by type of vehicle.

    What are the most valuable scrap metals in salvage cars?

    The most valuable scrap metal in salvage cars is steel. Recycled steel is used heavily in the construction and automotive industries. The frame, body, engine, and drivetrain contain most of the steel in a vehicle. According to The World Steel Association, about 55% of a vehicle’s weight is steel that can be recycled. Recycling steel uses between 60 to 74 percent of the energy it takes to produce new steel. Aluminum is the second most valuable scrap metal in salvage cars, and most transmissions today are made of aluminum rather than steel. Other valuable metals are found throughout the car and include platinum, palladium, and rhodium. However, salvage cars often have value beyond the price they can bring in scrap metal.

    How much is a salvage car hulk worth?

    A salvage car hulk or salvage car shell can result from flooding, burning, and other types of severe damage. When a salvage vehicle has no value other than scrap it is considered a salvage car hulk. These salvage car shells are only worth the amount and type of metals they contain. Salvage vehicles that cannot be fully recycled due to the type of damage or the presence of penetrating rust have even less value.

    What to do with a Salvage Car?

    Below are a few things you can do with a salvage car.

    1. Allow the salvage car to be disposed of by the insurance company. Most car insurance companies take ownership of the salvage car when payment for the claim is accepted by the vehicle owner unless the owner opts to retain the vehicle in exchange for a lower payout. Allowing the insurance company to dispose of the salvage car takes it off your plate entirely so you can focus on getting a new vehicle.
    2. Retain the salvage car and fix it to drive yourself. You are allowed to retain a salvage vehicle instead of allowing the car insurance company to keep it, but you must declare this desire ahead of time so that the insurance company can adjust the payout amount to reflect that retention. All 50 states deny registration of salvage cars with a salvage title or certificate unless it has been given a rebuilt salvage title brand. The requirements and inspections necessary to get a rebuilt salvage title so that you can register and drive the vehicle legally vary by state, but most require that the work be done by a licensed mechanic. Hiring a mechanic at a salvage yard is the most cost effective way to get a salvage car back on the road.
    3. Retain the salvage car and sell it to a junk car buyer. Car insurance companies make a lot of money off of the salvage cars they obtain and sell at auctions. Many people find that the salvage value of their vehicle is much higher than what they are being offered by the insurance company. Taking a lower payout from the insurance company and selling the salvage car to a junk car buyer for close to its full value typically nets more cash than taking the full offer from the insurance company. When you still owe money on the car after insurance pays the claim and the difference is equal to or less than the salvage value of the vehicle it could benefit you greatly to retain the vehicle and sell it directly to a junkyard or junk car buyer like Junk Car Medics.
    4. Retain the salvage car and donate it to a charity. Some charities accept salvage car donations, but not all. In addition, charities often get less for salvage cars than you can get selling it to a junk car buyer. For these reasons it is usually better to sell the salvage car to a junk car buyer and donate the resulting cash to the charity instead.

    In any case what you do with a salvage car starts with the decision of whether or not you will retain the vehicle or allow the insurance company to deal with it. It is almost always more profitable to retain the vehicle.

    Can I sell a salvage car with no title?

    You can sell a salvage car with no title when the vehicle has previously had a salvage title or salvage certificate issued in the owner’s name but that salvage title has been lost, mutilated, or destroyed. There may be additional paperwork required to sell a salvage car with no title depending on state requirements. Check with your local DMV to determine what documentation is needed to sell a salvage car with no title. Junk Car Medics is familiar with the salvage title laws in all 50 states and can assist you in identifying and completing the necessary paperwork to sell salvage cars with no title.

    It is important to note that registration and operation of salvage cars on public roadways is prohibited in all 50 states unless the salvage car has received a rebuilt salvage title after passing the required safety and emissions inspections. A vehicle with a rebuilt salvage title status is worth more than a salvage title, particularly when the salvage title is unavailable.

    Can I sell a salvage car without registration?

    You do not need a vehicle registration to sell salvage cars in any state. Most states do not allow vehicles with a salvage title to be registered, and as such most salvage cars do not have registration available. When the salvage title is lost, missing, or destroyed, the last registration in the owner’s name may serve as proof of ownership.

    Who buys salvage cars?

    There are 4 main places that buy salvage cars.

    1. Auto salvage yards. Auto salvage yards are the obvious choice for selling salvage cars. Auto salvage yards often sell used car parts as well as using those car parts to rebuild salvage cars to sell as used vehicles. Auto salvage yards pay the most for salvage cars that are in high demand and they can get much use from before recycling.
    2. Junkyards. Every community in America has access to a self-service junkyard. Junkyards buy salvage cars and allow the public to pull parts from the cars on their lots. When the cars have no more reusable parts or the vehicle is no longer in demand it is sent on to an auto dismantler to start the process of recycling the salvage car.
    3. Junk car buyers. Junk car buyers like Junk Car Medics take the guesswork out of finding the perfect home for your salvage car. Junk Car Medics works with junkyards, salvage yards, and auto scrap yards to give the best prices for salvage cars and gets them where they need to go based on condition and demand.
    4. Scrap vehicle recyclers. When a vehicle has no value other than scrap the salvage car may be sold directly to a vehicle recycler. These salvage cars bring the least amount of cash of all places that buy salvage cars.

    You may be able to find individual salvage car buyers depending on the make and model of the vehicle. However, not many individuals buy salvage cars unless they also happen to be collectible or commonly restored.

    How to choose a salvage car buyer

    Choosing a salvage car buyer is an important decision. A reputable and experienced junk car buyer that frequently deals in salvage cars will be able to give you the best price and the best experience selling salvage vehicles. It is important that you check the reputation and legitimacy of salvage car buyers, compare prices, and determine overall value before deciding on a junk car buyer.

    Here are a few things to look for when comparing salvage car buyers.

    1. Licensed salvage car buyer. Unless you are selling a salvage car to an individual the entity buying your salvage car should be licensed to do so. Junk car buyers may require different licensing than other junk car facilities like junkyards, salvage yards, and wrecking yards. Check your local laws to determine what licensing is required in your area. Junk Car Medics is a licensed junk car buyer in all 50 states.
    2. Experienced salvage car buyer. Look for salvage car buyers with a large internet presence and many reviews as this indicates experience. It is not always easy to tell how long a junk car buyer has been in business but most of the time salvage car buyers with experience will have more mixed reviews. Junk Car Medics has thousands of positive online reviews found across the web including on Google, Trust Pilot, and Yelp.
    3. Fair salvage car buyer. It is easy to tell which salvage car buyers pay fair prices and which pull bait-and-switch offers by reading reviews from real customers. A junk car buyer with all 5 star reviews likely solicited those reviews and they may not be truly indicative of whether or not they pay fair prices for salvage cars.
    4. Offers free salvage car removal. Salvage car removal should be included in the junk car quote you receive as you compare prices from different salvage car buyers. Using local towing companies keeps costs of salvage car removal down while also making the process easy and painless.
    5. Helps with paperwork to sell salvage cars. The paperwork needed to sell salvage cars can vary depending on the circumstances under which it became salvage and other factors. For example, if there was a lien on the vehicle title before it became a salvage car a lien release may be required to sell the salvage vehicle to a junk car buyer. Selling a salvage car without a title also typically requires additional paperwork. The best junk car buyers will help you with this process. Junk Car Medics is familiar with title laws in all 50 states and will provide forms and instructions for all necessary paperwork to sell your salvage car.

    Junk Car Medics stands out from other junk car buyers in two main ways. Junk Car Medics makes other junk car buyers in your area compete for the vehicle so that we can give you the best prices with the least hassle. The second way that Junk Car Medics stands out is with our quick, easy, painless, and rewarding process that is well-documented across the web. Always compare junk car buyers carefully to get the best deal for your salvage car.

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