Branded Titles – Look Before You Buy

Common title brands used by most states:

  • Damaged
  • Dismantled
  • Gray market
  • Junk
  • Lemon law buyback
  • Prior police
  • Prior taxi
  • Rebuilt
  • Reconditioned
  • Remanufactured
  • Replica
  • Revived junk
  • Revived salvage
  • Salvage
  • Scrap vehicle
  • Totaled
  • Warranty returned
  • Water damage

Where Do I Look for a Title Brand?

A “brand” is wording on a California Certificate of Title or registration card that indicates certain conditions in the vehicle’s history. While most states put history brands somewhere on their titles, the wording varies from state to state.

Although California has indicated prior history on titling documents for many years, vehicle history information is more prominently displayed on the latest revision of both the California Certificate of Title and Salvage Certificate, you will find the title brand in a red box, titled VEHICLE HISTORY, near the upper right-hand corner of the document.

Close-up of California Certificate of Title, Vehicle History box.

Why Are Brands Important to Consumers?

Brands indicate what has happened to a vehicle. They may indicate high mileage, significant damage, or chronic problems.

What Conditions Require a Brand?

The following brands are placed on California Certificates of Title and Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) records:

  • Salvage-Vehicles marked with a “salvaged” brand were involved in an accident or incurred considerable damage from another source, such as a flood or vandalism. This brand includes previously dismantled (junk) vehicles.
  • Original Taxi or Prior Taxi-Vehicles formerly used “for hire” and which usually have high mileage.
  • Original Police or Prior Police-Vehicles formerly used by law enforcement and which usually have high mileage.
  • Non-USA-Vehicles manufactured for sale and use outside the United States that have been converted to meet federal and California safety and emissions standards.
  • Warranty Return or Lemon Law Buyback-Vehicles which have been returned to the manufacturer under California’s Lemon Law.
  • Remanufactured-A licensed remanufacturer that constructs vehicles consisting of used or reconditioned parts. These vehicles may be sold under a distinctive trade name.

What Is a Salvage Vehicle?

Of all the vehicle brands, salvage has received the most attention in the past few years.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs found that more than 700,000 structurally damaged and 150,000 salvage vehicles are returned to streets and highways every year without a safety inspection, and pose a potential hazard to motorists.

salvage vehicle is a vehicle that has been wrecked or damaged to such an extent that it is considered too expensive to repair. The California Certificate of Title, license plates, Application for Salvage Certificate or Nonrepairable Vehicle Certificate (REG 488C) form, and the required fee are submitted to DMV to have a salvage certificate issued for the vehicle.

revived salvage is a salvage vehicle which has been repaired and reregistered with DMV.

Why Should I Be Cautious When Buying a Revived Salvage Vehicle?

Although many salvage vehicles are expertly repaired, some vehicles:

  • Are not properly repaired or tested and may be dangerous to operate.
  • Have been repaired with stolen parts. If the California Highway Patrol (CHP) or DMV determines the vehicle or its parts have been stolen, the vehicle cannot be registered and the vehicle or parts will be seized.

How Do I Identify a Salvage Vehicle?

Look at the title. It will tell you:

  • If the vehicle is a salvage.
  • The mileage when the vehicle was last sold.
  • Who the vehicle owner is.

Sellers, including dealerships, are legally required to disclose the vehicle’s salvage title and history, but the law is difficult to enforce, especially when a vehicle comes from another state. Be sure the seller is the owner. If the seller is not the owner or an authorized agent for the owner, they are not entitled to sell the vehicle, and you are not entitled to transfer the vehicle to your name. If the seller’s name is not on the title, there must be documentation, such as a bill of sale, dealer report of sale, or power of attorney, authorizing that person to sell the vehicle.

Effective July 1, 2012, California-licensed dealers must obtain a National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) report from an approved provider before a used vehicle is offered or displayed for sale. If the NMVTIS used vehicle history report indicates the vehicle is or has been a junk or salvage, or the certificate of title contains a brand, the dealer must post a disclosure statement on the vehicle while it is displayed for sale. The only exceptions are when a dealer attempts to obtain an NMVTIS report, but NMVTIS does not have a record for the vehicle, or if the vehicle is a motorcycle, recreational vehicle, or off-highway vehicle subject to identification under California Vehicle Code §38010.

Inspect the vehicle. Some of the following clues may indicate the vehicle has an undisclosed salvage history:

  • Signs of major repairs on the inner fender structures.
  • Mud, mold, or rust under the carpet in the trunk.
  • Vehicle identification number (VIN) plate attached with materials other than rivets.
  • Safety restraint light is always on.
  • Airbag covers are resealed or improperly installed.
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) labels which usually appear on the doors, inside hood, tailgate, and hatchback are missing.

Where Can I Find Additional Information?

  • Check the vehicle history, visit the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System website at
  • Check a database of vehicles and watercraft affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Sandy, visit the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) website at
  • Use a free online service which identifies storm damaged vehicles, visit the AutoCheck Storm Scan website at
  • Find information about highway and motor vehicle safety, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website at
  • Check the smog test history of a vehicle, verify a repair dealer’s license, and find information on making a wise used vehicle purchase, visit the Bureau of Automotive Repair website at
  • Find consumer assistance and vehicle information, visit the California Department of Consumer Affairs website at
  • Get a copy of someone else’s vehicle record, visit the Request Vehicle or Driver Records page on the DMV website.