The vehicles offered at independent used car lots, at salvage auctions or even in newspaper or online ads may seem like real bargains. But that 3-year-old, low-mileage car that's going for just a few thousand dollars may have more problems than you realize. It could be a salvaged vehicle that has not been properly repaired.
State motor vehicle departments issue salvage titles to vehicles that have been seriously damaged in some way -- like in a collision, theft or flood, according to Edmunds.com. A seller, a salvage company or body shop may want to fix the car and sell it. Many states -- but not all -- require an inspection of the repaired vehicle before issuing a new title, which is usually branded with words like "rebuilt" or "restored," according to the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles. That lets future buyers know that the car has had some damage history.
The problems arise when unscrupulous dealers or dishonest individuals hide the fact that a vehicle has been salvaged. They may simply neglect to disclose the salvage title unless the buyer demands it. Or they may alter or forge titles, making it appear that the car never has been salvaged, according to vehicle history report company Carfax.
Some resellers buy salvaged cars with flood damage, clean them and ship them to a state with fewer salvage regulations, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The purchasers of that polished, gleaming car on the used car lot have no way of knowing that it once was buried under 6 feet of water and mud. But they'll probably discover the results of that exposure when they find mildew under seat cushions or when metal on the undercarriage begins to rust.
Another scam involving salvaged vehicles is car clipping. According to Carfax, this involves taking sections from two damaged cars and welding them together to make another car. The resulting vehicle is not as structurally sound as an original vehicle and can put drivers and passengers at risk.
The Utah Department of Motor Vehicles suggests used car shoppers follow these strategies to avoid unknowingly purchasing a salvaged vehicle:
- Be suspicious of any vehicle recently titled out of state or of titles where the seller's name doesn't appear.
- Check for door gaps. The door should not touch the fender when you open the door.
- Check the vehicle for patched-up damage (like dents covered with body filler) or odd-looking paint (especially around doorjambs, moldings and other spots that are easily missed).
- Get the vehicle checked by a trusted mechanic.
- Mildew, debris and silt under the carpeting, in the trunk or around the engine.
- Rust on metal pieces.
- Water stains or discoloration on upholstery, seat belts and door panels.
- A musty odor or strong disinfectant smell.