Ask MO Anything: Should I Buy a Motorcycle With a Salvage Title?

John Burns
by John Burns

Dear MOby,

As I wander through the Craigslist and Marketplace wonderland, I can’t help noticing there are some really good deals on bikes with salvage titles. All the sellers always claim these bikes run great, cosmetic damage only if they admit to any damage at all. I’m new to motorcycling, so I probably don’t want a bike that’s perfect anyway – and money is definitely an object. Is a salvage bike a bad idea? What are they hiding?

M. Perfect

Dear M,

“Salvage title” is another one of those phrases that strikes fear into the hearts of many – similar to “used Jaguar” or “please come into my office and close the door.” All those phrases, though, can portend good news just as easily as bad.

Basically what’s usually going on is that an insurance company has decided that the cost to repair damage to a vehicle – be it from a crash, flood, angry ex-spouse with flamethrower or what-have you – exceeds what the insurance company thinks the vehicle is worth. At that point, they write the owner a check and take the vehicle, which they’ll probably then sell at an auction unless it’s totally beyond repair, or sometimes back to the owner. At that point, the new title will have something like “salvaged vehicle” stamped on it like a scarlet letter, and its value will have been greatly reduced in the process.

For the average civilian who moves blithely from Civic to Kia to Camry and makes payments, this is probably a medium-sized, quickly repressed financial setback. For the savvy repair-minded person, however, the salvage title can be the ticket to a great deal, since anything branded with the scarlet “S” title is worth way less money.

Wiki informs us: Industry standards followed by the National Automobile Dealers Association Appraisal Guides, Kelley Blue Book Market Report Official Guide, and the International Society of Automotive Appraisers devalue a motor vehicle that has a salvage title. The Kelley Blue Book automatically rates any salvage vehicle as “poor” and does not value it at all. The value of a vehicle with a salvage title is generally 65-75% lower than the vehicle’s estimated value.

For the person who’s at least somewhat mechanical minded, willing to invest a bit of sweat equity, and not concerned with resale value, a salvaged motorcycle can be a great bargain. In the old days, just about any bike more than a few years old with three or four scraped-up body panels, or a scratched frame or swingarm as the result of a gentle lowside, would be too expensive for the insurance people to repair. OEM body panels are way expensive. These days, cheap imported plastic is an easy if inelegant fix, or maybe some nice Sharkskinz race bodywork… or maybe you’re just handy with the Bondo and Rhino liner

Why buy a perfect Hayabusa when you know you’re planning a Bubbles the Chimp mural anyway?

In the case of a motorcycle, if the frame isn’t bent and you’re not buying a salvaged Mondial Piega or something equally exotic, tons of perfectly usable forks, wheels, lights, whatever you need, are way more easily sourceable second-hand than in the old days. (And, just because your title isn’t salvage, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear anyway: My $1500 2000 R1 had some obvious damage, but I didn’t realize it had a bent frame until I bumped into the GMD Computrack guy at the track one day. Your R1 is tucked!, he said. Excuse me?)

My R1 would’ve had a salvage title, probably, if the guy I’d bought it from had had insurance. I had naked bike aspirations.

Speaking of the track, in most states you’re not allowed to operate your salvage-titled vehicle on the king’s highways (until you prove it’s roadworthy), which makes salvage-titled bikes an excellent choice for people looking for a track bike. You were only going to put on race bodywork and upgrade the suspension anyway – and you don’t need a license plate, lights or any of that extraneous stuff, do you? Warning: Salvage title is not the same as No title!

From the great Brian Catterson: Yup, lots of race/track-day bikes are ex-salvage. Damaged fairings and scratched frames/forks/swingarms (believe it or not) often result in a bike being “totaled” by the insurance company, even if it’s 100% mechanically. I wouldn’t buy a salvage bike with an eye toward reselling it, as resale values are nil. But as a rider, sure, provided all of the DMV ducks are in a row. Oh, and BTW, I would get a title even if you’re just going to ride it at the racetrack. I remember a police flatbed showing up at Willow Springs once and hauling off all of the bikes that the riders couldn’t prove they owned.

Our FB friend Robby Stanley’s $500 250 racer.

If you do want to get your salvage bike back on the road, laws vary from state to state, but the beauty of the modern world is that the www makes it pretty easy to figure out exactly what hoops you need to jump through without braving the DMV repeatedly. In California for example, it’s all spelled out on the DMV website, right here in Requirements for Reregistering a Salvage Vehicle. We are dealing with bureaucracy, but none of it sounds like rocket surgery. Just a couple of forms followed by an inspection to see if the lights and horn work. Many states don’t even require that.

Another piece of conventional wisdom is that salvage bikes are hard to insure, but that’s not what people who’ve insured plenty of them say. Our friend Jesse Kiser: I’ve owned like five. I’ve rebuilt all of them, so I know what’s there. The old horror stories came during the custom-bike craze in the early 2000s. There aren’t any significant issues with titles, insurance, etc. anymore. Most have been in North Carolina, and I transferred one in and out of CA… I had full-coverage insurance through Geico on two “Total Loss” title bikes. There’s TONS of hearsay about salvage bikes. I just sold one and had so much crap from Marketplace messages, and no one would take the time to just call the DMV and ask… they just wanted it for even cheaper than my low asking price.

In short, then, a nice salvage bike that’s in reasonably decent shape doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all if money is tight, but it’s of course up to you as buyer to determine what reasonably decent means. If you’re new to bikes, bribing an experienced friend or better yet, an actual mechanic to have a look before you jump, is always the best way to go. If the seller doesn’t encourage that, maybe keep shopping.

I’m glad you brought this up. I’ve seen a couple of used Jaguars with salvage titles that really appeal to me, but until now I was afraid. Sounds like I shouldn’t be. Step into my office.

Direct your motorcycle-related questions to If you have a hard time telling the difference between Fake News and real, you’ll be amazed at our depth of knowledge on all matters moto and otherwise.

John Burns
John Burns

More by John Burns

Join the conversation
3 of 39 comments
  • Greybeard1 Greybeard1 on May 26, 2020

    "I’ve seen a couple of used Jaguars with
    salvage titles that really appeal to me, but until now I was afraid.
    Sounds like I shouldn’t be. Step into my office."
    It wasn't all that long ago John.
    Has the memory clouded? ;o)

    • Pushr0d Pushr0d on Jun 18, 2020

      Afraid? From the famous owner of the 'Jagrolet?'

  • Mark D Mark D on May 26, 2020

    " it from a crash, flood, angry ex-spouse with flamethrower or what-have you"