Clean Title Definition
When buying a used vehicle, it’s essential to do all the research you can and find a car with a clean title to avoid many of the problems that come with a branded title car.
What is a Title?
A car title is a legal document that records the vehicle’s history. The title information shows each vehicle owner, any major accidents the car has suffered, and the current mileage and condition. The certificate of title also shows the car or truck’s vehicle identification number (VIN), manufacturer, make, model, year, and trim level. It may also indicate whether a lienholder financed the vehicle and the current owner’s information.
What is a Clean Title?
All vehicles start with a clean title. A clean title means the car or truck has never experienced any severe damage due to flood, accidents, hail, fire, etc.
However, a clear title does not mean that the car has never been damaged. For example, in some cases, if the vehicle was in an accident and it was feasible to repair, the insurance company would pay the claim, the damage would be fixed, and the car’s title would remain clean.
If the damage to the vehicle is extensive and worth more than the car itself, the insurance company will declare it “totaled,” and then it will be issued a new title by the state department that handles vehicle titles.
Types of Title Brands
Whenever a car is deemed a total loss by an insurance company, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or another state agency issues it a branded title. There are various types of title brands. Below are a few of the most common:
When a car is totaled, often the DMV will issue it a junk title, meaning it is inoperable and cannot be legally driven on the roads. As a result, it may only be sold for parts or scrap metal.
Whenever a car is damaged severely and deemed a “total loss” by the insurance company, it will be issued a salvage title. Salvage vehicles may be rebuilt at some point or sold for parts. You cannot drive a salvage car legally on the roads. Car insurance companies will not insure them, and you cannot register it.
Whenever a car or truck has been submerged in water for a specific period of time, it will receive a flood branded title. The damage to carpets and other materials could lead to mold or mildew. Water damage can also cause mechanical or electrical failure. However, some of these vehicles may be rebuilt and restored to working condition.
A vehicle that was in a fire will have considerable damage, although some of it may only be cosmetic. Therefore, the DMV will issue it a fire damage branded title.
Many parts of the country get violent storms with hail. A hail-damaged vehicle will receive a hail branded title, and often these cars are still safe to drive and sound mechanically and electrically. Hail is often simply cosmetic damage.
If someone rolls the odometer back on a vehicle, the DMV will be forced to rebrand it with an odometer rollback title. There will be no way to ever know precisely how many miles it has on it.
If a car has a significant issue and cannot be repaired fully after a few tries, it may be branded with a lemon title. It could mean the vehicle is not safe to drive or mechanically unsound. Each state and insurer have different lemon laws regarding the extent of the defects and the process for remediation.
When someone purchases or has a salvage vehicle, they may complete the repairs themselves or pay someone to do it and then go through the state-mandated process of a thorough inspection so that the car can be legally driven again. When this happens, the DMV will issue a rebuilt title if it passes the rigorous inspection. Unfortunately, these cars may still have issues that are not easily visible.
If a car is stolen and goes missing for a period of time (each state law differs on how long) or the car is smashed and damaged by vandalism, it will receive a theft/vandalism branded title from the DMV.
Fleet cars are often heavily used and may suffer significant damage over time. Fleet cars such as taxis, government vehicles, law enforcement vehicles, etc., may receive a fleet car branded title.
What is Title Washing?
Sometimes criminals will steal cars or buy branded title cars and patch them up just enough, so the damage is not visible. Then because each state has different criteria for salvage or junk vehicles, they may transport these vehicles across state lines and register them with the DMV as clean-title cars. This is called title washing, and it is an illegal process.
A Clean Title Does Not Mean Perfect Vehicle
With a quick examination, even clean title vehicles may have defects or issues that you may not be aware of. In addition, cars with a clean title could have been in an accident or suffered other damage that was fixed and paid for with an insurance claim. So even though a car or truck may have a clean title, it still may not be perfect or even safe to drive.
How to Avoid Branded Title Issues When Buying a Used Car
Title washing is often difficult to detect unless you know what to look for. Any type of branded title may be a red flag to look elsewhere. However, the best way to avoid any branded title issues is to do a thorough vehicle inspection, have a good mechanic check the vehicle over from top to bottom, and do your own research.
Using the VIN, you can perform a VIN check easily online and see an entire vehicle history report, including any accidents, branded titles, and more.
In some cases, it may make the most sense to buy a new car from a dealership rather than deal with the headaches of a branded title car.