How To Get A Car's Salvage Title Cleared

Getting your car to rebuilt status means you can legally drive it once more.

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In the United States, a vehicle is given a salvage title when deemed to be a total loss, unfit to be driven, or when the cost of repairs is deemed to be greater than the car's value. Most of the time, a salvage title applies to a vehicle involved in a serious accident, but severe damage from a natural disaster could be another reason. Most of the time, we'd advise you to steer clear of a car with a salvage title. However, savvy consumers can save a lot of money by getting a car rebuilt if the car is adequately repaired, instead of buying a newer, more expensive car. In this piece, we'll look at how to get a salvage title cleared.

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Salvage Titles Explained

Over 215 million cars in the United States are insured. When one of these cars is determined to be damaged beyond repair, it receives a salvage title, as the insurance company considers the car a total loss or unfit for safe driving.

Different states and insurance companies have their own thresholds for determining whether a car can feasibly be repaired or not, which is roughly a cost of between 60% and 100% of the car's value. In Nebraska, for instance, a salvage vehicle must have a repair cost that exceeds 75% of its retail value. Besides serious accident damage, a salvage title can apply when a car is damaged in a natural disaster like a flood or fire. If a car is stolen or vandalized, it may also receive a salvage title.

A car with a salvage title will be difficult to sell for anything of real value and challenging to insure. However, this is where clearing a salvage title comes in and could be the most viable option for owners of a salvage-title vehicle.

Josh Sonnenberg/Unsplash GR Corolla Forum

Can You Change A Salvage Title To A Clean Title?

The short answer here is no; once a car is assigned a salvage title, it can almost never be assigned a clean title again (with the exception being erroneous salve title assignments, which we deal with in greater detail below.

Once a vehicle receives a salvage title, it can only be reclassified as a rebuilt vehicle and will never have a clean title again. Title washing is a common tactic used by scammers, though, whereby a salvage title vehicle is claimed to have a clean title. This is illegal, though.

Rebuilt Titles Explained

In some cases, a car with a salvage title can be repaired to an extent where it receives a rebuilt title, once again making it eligible to be legally driven if it passes an inspection. This provides the owner with more options. Either they can retain ownership of the car and drive it once more, or they can sell it with a rebuilt title, which will improve the chances of getting more money back on the car. That being said, unless it is a vintage Ferrari, a car with a rebuilt title will still be around 20% to 40% less valuable than the same car with a clean title.

It comes as no surprise that many car shoppers would shy away from a rebuilt car. Sometimes, you are at risk of buying a rebuilt car without knowing it. However, the lower cost of obtaining one, and the specific repair work done, mean that you could walk away with a sweet deal. We found the following cars with a rebuilt title for sale via Autoworld of America, which you can compare with their retail prices.

Examples Of Rebuilt Cars For Sale

Make and ModelTitle/DamageJ.D. Power Retail PriceSelling Price
2023 Acura Integra with A-Spec Tech PackageRebuilt Title - Minor Flood/Water Damage$35,625$27,800
2020 BMW 330i xDriveRebuilt Title - Minor Flood/Water Damage$34,225$25,950
2018 GMC Terrain FWD SLTRebuilt Title - Minor Flood/Water Damage$24,925$18,950
2022 Honda CR-V Touring AWDRebuilt Title - Minor Accident$39,600$26,950

In the case of the popular Honda CR-V, the selling price represents a value of 32% less than the retail value.

"It could come down to a case-by-case basis," said Steve Elek, program leader for auto data analytics at Consumer Reports. "For example, you could have a car that has a rebuilt title due to heavy hail damage. That car might be mechanically sound."

Now that you know a salvage title can be cleared and replaced by a rebuilt title, let's look at how to get this done.

Autoworld of America Autoworld of America

How To Remove A Salvage Title

To get to the point where the Department of Motor Vehicles declares a car worthy of a rebuilt title, you must go through the following process, with minor differences depending on where you're located:

  • Acquire the vehicle - If you don't already own a car with a salvage title, it's possible to buy one for very little in some circumstances. In certain states, only licensed rebuilders can legally purchase a car with a salvage title.
  • Repair the vehicle and document the process - If you have the skills to conduct the repair yourself, this is the most crucial step. Depending on whether the damage is cosmetic, electrical, or mechanical, repairing a salvage-title car is not a simple process and is best done by enlisting the services of a professional. Some repairs, such as straightening a damaged vehicle frame, require specific tools. While the repair is taking place, it will help your cause to take pictures and retain every piece of documentation on the repair work done or new parts fitted, increasing the chances of receiving a rebuilt title.
  • Apply for and pass a rebuilt title inspection - The requirements here will once again differ from state to state, but in general, you'll need to have your rebuilt vehicle inspected by an official Motor Vehicle Inspector to verify that it's safe to be driven legally. This part of the process will include filling in the relevant DMV documents, submitting the bill of sale, and submitting the existing salvage title. Since a vehicle carrying a salvage title can't be legally driven, you will need to have it towed to the relevant location.
Ifer Endahl/Unsplash

State-Specific Requirements

These are just a few examples of the specific requirements from state to state. You will need to consult with your specific state's Department of Revenue to find out the requirements needed to clear your vehicle's salvage title.

  • In Alabama, the inspector will contact the applicant for an inspection one to two weeks after the request has been received. Here, applicants need to submit a $90 inspection fee and bills of sale for component part replacements. If the applicant did not own the vehicle before salvage, a master dealer regulatory license to apply for the rebuilt inspection is required.
  • The Department of Revenue in Georgia specifies that "anyone who purchases a salvage of wrecked vehicle for the purpose of restoring or rebuilding must be licensed as a rebuilder." This state also requires an approved inspector to inspect the vehicle when it is restored but before it is painted.
  • In New Jersey, the application form for a salvage-title vehicle inspection fee costs $200. It specifies - as do many other states - that the vehicle must be towed to the inspection site. The inspection takes approximately an hour and the vehicle owner may not observe this process. The required documents are lengthy, including VINs of new and used parts like the engine, transmission, frame, doors, airbags, and quarter panels. Terminology also differs from state to state, with New Jersey supplying an "operable salvage" title if the inspection is passed.
  • In Colorado, a salvage title can be replaced by a "rebuilt from salvage" title. This re-branded title must be stamped into the vehicle on the body post where the driver's door latches, or the B-pillar, and even requires a specific size of over one-fourth of an inch in size. The inspection fee is $50.
Michael Jin/Unsplash

Erroneous Salvage Title Assignments

In rare instances, an insurer may have erroneously deemed a car to have a salvage status. If the owner of that car believes this to be true and they want the title to be corrected, it's possible to submit documentation supporting this. This will include a court order directing the DMV to remove the salvage title. However, according to the DMV in California, the owner will only succeed in their case if the insurer admits to assigning the salvage title in error.

Christian Buehner/Unsplash

Summary: Tricky, But Possible

Each case is different, but it's entirely possible to clear your vehicle of a salvage title for a rebuilt one, making it either legally drivable or sellable for a much higher price. It's an admin-intensive exercise, however, and the DMV could reject your application for seemingly minor component issues. By then, you may have spent a considerable amount of money on the rebuild. However, a consumer with an in-depth understanding of car rebuilds or a dependable, trusted rebuilder is in a much better position to pursue this avenue. If you're uncertain, it may be advisable to cut your losses, let go of the salvage car, and get back whatever little you can.

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