If you've come across a salvage-titled car you want to buy, and your state allows you to purchase it, a careful mix of research, scrutiny and understanding of title processes can mean the difference between your purchase being a deal or a non-roadworthy money pit.
First, you must know why the car received a salvage title. If it was stolen and recovered, for example, the insurer may have already replaced it for the owner and written off the recovered car as a matter of accounting. On the other hand, a car that receives a salvage title because its frame was bent in a crash could be a nightmare to repair and may never be safe to drive. Likewise, some damage, such as flood damage, is hard to spot. A car that looks and smells fine on a sunny day may be a different story when the weather turns damp [sources: Lease Guide, Salvage Title Cars].
Once you've identified the cause of the salvage title, consider your own skills and resources. Do you know how to repair the damage that keeps the car from being roadworthy? Do you have the time and money to pay for the additional inspection needed to have the car retitled, and will your insurer charge a higher rate to cover the car because of its history? If you enjoy working on cars and have access to the proper tools and parts, you may be able to complete repairs yourself and make the car roadworthy for far less than a mechanic would charge. On the other hand, biting off more than you can chew can leave you with an expensive project that does little more than take up space in your garage.
Once a salvage-titled car is ready to go back on the road, it typically must be inspected. State motor vehicle bureaus or highway patrol departments usually handle this process, and there is usually a fee for the inspection, in addition to any fees for the new title. The inspection ensures that the vehicle is roadworthy and often includes a check of the major components (motor, body parts, etc.) to guarantee that no stolen parts were used in the reconstruction. It's important to learn about the inspection process in advance in case you need to supply proof of ownership -- typically in the form of receipts or bills of sale -- for any components used to repair the car [sources: Ohio Department of Public Safety, Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles].
In the end, a buyer is wise to heed an old phrase that's been around since long before cars, titles and salvage even existed: "Buyer beware."
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