How to turn a totaled car into your next ride

By Staff Writer
Mar 31, 2023 | Mazda, Subaru, Miata, Copart, Auction, wreck | Posted in Features | From the May 2015 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

Story by Norman Garrett

Broken cars whisper to me. I’ve owned some 60-odd cars in my life, and fully half of them did not run when I bought them. Of course, most of them were European sports cars from the ’60s and ’70s, so they had died of self-inflicted wounds due to poor build quality, poor materials, poor design, or the like. These cars would call to me from behind garages and under trees in backyards all over the South, and unless they were hopelessly terminal, I would generally answer their cries for help. 

The modern era has provided the ultimate enabler in the form of the internet: I have taken to searching eBay and local Craigslists using “projects,” “broken” and “dead” as my search keywords, with great results.

Imagine my joy, given this predilection, when I discovered tens of thousands of broken cars online at various websites dedicated to auctioning off insurance companies’ salvage vehicles. There, from the comfort of my sofa, I could lust for hundreds of special-interest cars and bid on them against other bleary-eyed, like-minded souls. The addiction returned immediately, and I’m now three years into a bad habit. 

These cars, I justify to myself, suffer from externally inflicted wounds and have one leg up on my earlier projects: Every one of these was recently operating and on the road. And not only were they running recently, they were running well enough to achieve some level of speed–enough velocity to get into an accident, at least–so they have a modicum of momentum, mechanically speaking. 

Thus many of the salvage wrecks offered for sale fit into the Urgent Care rather than Emergency ICU category. Rust, decay and rigor mortis have not yet attacked their core components, so with a bit of work, many of them can be brought back into service. The best part? They sell cheaply enough to make it make sense.

Norman Garrett helped turn the Mazda Miata from concept into reality. Now he revives dead ones from insurance auctions. Photography Credits: David S. Wallens (Norman Garrett), J.G. Pasterjak

First, A Word About Insurance

Relax, I’m not going to get all Marlin Perkins on you, but if you want to play this game, you need to understand the rules. Insurance companies will total a car when the repair costs exceed 50 to 60 percent of the current value of that car. According to my experience, that pre-accident value gets rated near the Kelley Blue Book “very good” value by the adjuster. When the cost to repair it reaches a pre-determined percentage of this value, the car is totaled and sold for salvage.

This means that the higher a car’s pre-accident value, the more work you are signing up for to repair it. Put another way, it takes a whole lot more damage to total a 2010 model car than a 2000 model, or a more expensive brand instead of a less expensive one. So if you really want to rebuild that wrecked five-year-old Porsche, realize that the repair bill needs to have been estimated at tens of thousands of dollars. 

Photography Credit: Norman Garrett

Contrast this against what it takes to total a 1999 Miata. If the car is worth just $3000, then a mere $1200 worth of damage will deem it as totaled. 

Let’s talk about “acceptable levels of damage” from a practical standpoint. That $1200 in damage to the Miata could represent one air bag and a front bumper cover, or it could be a smashed-in door panel. The average reader of GRM could handle these repairs fairly easily. 

My absolute favorite is when one or both air bags are set off by a borderline front-end crash, but the front bumper appears undamaged. This is a pretty typical failure, as an 8 mph impact into a stopped car will often trigger the airbags. 

Now, air bags are very expensive for a shop to fix–think “liability” and “lawyers” and “all new parts” and you’ll get it. However, at least in my home state of North Carolina, you don’t need to have working air bags to register or operate your own car–my kind of place. (This is not true in all states, so check your local requirements before you get ahead of yourself.) Of course, if you’re building a track car or race car, then things can be even simpler since you’d be removing the air bags anyway. 

Another favorite find is a car with a lightly dented rear quarter panel. In today’s modern world of unibody cars, the exterior panels are often structural, so no insurance company wants to take on the liability of just putting some body filler into a rear fender dent and calling it good. If a repaired car gets into a subsequent wreck, it has to crush just like a new one, and that means a new panel has to be welded in. This is so costly on most cars that they get totaled when they may still be structurally sound–for example, when only the outer sheet metal is damaged and the actual crush zones and/or stress beams in the floorpan are unaffected. 

Insurance companies are very risk-averse and also have very strong profit margins (count the number of expensive television ads some evening), so why should they chance a bodgy repair? They’d rather write off the car than take on any more risk. 

Insurance companies also have to repair cars to a cosmetic standard. Loading up a paint gun and shooting a base-coat/clear-coat color on a panel involves hundreds or thousands of dollars. However, if you have some body filler and some paint skills of your own (or if you can spell Maaco), you can save lots of money and get an acceptable finish for a driver-quality car. 

In my older years, I have become much less interested in “perfect” and am more attuned to “performance.” Not only do I get a lot more track time in my life when I don’t obsess with having a concours car, I have found that my perfectly painted cars are no faster around the track than my 20-footers. 

I’ve taught myself to paint with an Eastwood HVLP system, have practiced my panel-beating and filler-skimming skills, and have even created some acceptable welds along the way. If you select the correct car and wisely scrounge for parts, you can bring it back to life. The key is to get a car that is not too far gone–more about that later.

So, at the great risk of creating more competition for myself in the online auction game, I’d like to share some lessons learned from my experiences in buying salvaged cars online. Here are nine steps to guide you along this addictive path:

1. Carefully Choose Your Provider

There are a number of different insurance auction sites that you can search; Copart and IAA are two of the largest and most active. 

You will need to register at the site and put down a deposit, typically 10 percent of the maximum amount you want to be able to bid. The site will hold this money and apply it to any bids that you win, though it is refundable if you don’t find anything to bid on. Copart does not charge a registration fee, while IAA charges $200 (non-refundable) to register as a public buyer. 

I have used Copart for a handful of purchases with good success, and I like their system because they allow you to search pretty specifically. They also have many, many locations around the country–I have eight to choose from within a four-hour drive from my home in Charlotte. IAA has a similar amount of locations and an equally good search engine, with the added benefit of showing transmission type in their listings. 

The fees each company charges are basically the same, so making a choice comes down to how convenient is it to bid online and actually get the car to your house so you can work on it. In addition to wrecked vehicles, these sites also sell cars that have been totaled for flood damage, vandalism or poor previous repairs (rejected by the customer), and often list vehicles of the “dead car in the backyard” variety that have been donated to charities.

2. Search for “No License Required”

You can search for cars that you can bid on as a private citizen, but even if you are not a licensed dealer, you can pay a broker (typically a few hundred dollars) to use their license to get a car for you. 

I have found the selection of public-sale cars to be pretty good, but a gem hiding in the license-required section can make it worth the extra fees. The professional shops lurking in these waters are looking for either parts donors, or for cars they can fix and flip. In both cases they are limited as to how much they can pay for a car and still make money. 

We, however, are most likely looking to keep a car and will do a lot of the repair work ourselves, so we can justify paying a bit more. This means we can win some auctions against the pros. 

3. Look for “Pure Sale” vs. “On Approval” Vehicles

I am usually watching multiple cars at multiple locations at once–and I am impatient–so I need to know right away if I’ve won or lost an auction. 

Bidding on a car “On Approval” means that a representative from the insurance company must approve your offer; if they don’t like your bid, you may lose the sale even if you won the bidding process. I generally only bid on “Pure Sale” items so my post-auction transactions don’t enter this purgatory. 

4. Search for “Runs and Drives”

Most insurance auction sites allow you to search for these important criteria. If a car runs and drives, a lot of the risk is removed, particularly if you can’t inspect it first, since having a running engine means that it probably won’t need driveline repairs. 

Understand, however, that this does not necessarily mean you can drive it home from the lot. Selecting this filter is merely a time-saver, not a guarantee, since you could probably learn about as much from looking at the pictures and seeing if the damage appears to have affected any mechanical components. After all, the car was running when it was wrecked. 

It is important to note that some transporters will not ship a car that does not run. So if you don’t plan on getting it yourself, it may be difficult and/or expensive to get a dead car delivered to your door. Keep that in mind. 

5. Study the Photos

I have inspected many cars on-site prior to bidding on them, but I have also bought some at auction sight unseen. My luck has ranged from fair to excellent in this regard (see the sidebars for actual examples). 

When the photos are all you have to go on, understand that these are dangerous waters for an optimistic enthusiast such as myself. It pays to be very realistic about what you are looking at. 

Begin your photo study with an overview of the general damage. Move on if it’s too extensive–like the roof is flattened down, or one whole side of the car is creamed. Front bumpers and even headlights can be easily replaced if the underlying structures are not too damaged. Lightly damaged rear quarter panels often can be pulled out and set right without cutting and welding. 

Rear hatches can be replaced, but you need to be careful about damage to the metal that holds the weather-stripping underneath. If it’s mangled, this can be a bear to repair. (Also remember that your passengers will be more annoyed than you are by any wind noise that lingers after a bad repair. Trust me on this.)

Look closely at any door damage; if the sills still look good, you might be looking at just a simple parts swap, since doors are pretty easy to source and re-hang on a car. Front fenders are also inexpensive and easy to replace.

Front grilles, fenders and hoods are easy to bolt on if the underlying structure is not too torn-up. I’ve had good luck using a come-along and a tree to pull back hood and truck latch mounts to get them back into alignment. (Yes, I can be a redneck when needed.)

We could spend pages discussing what is fixable and what is not, but this really comes down to your experience and skill levels, your resources, and your ability to learn on the job. In some cases, I have subcontracted small parts of a job to a professional body shop–as when I need a pro (and his machine) to check and fix a frame or do some welding–just to get me past the hard stuff. Then I’ll do the rest of the work at home. 

Again, my standard of work is to create a functional vehicle that is presentable. If you are a concours type of customer, rebuilding a wreck may not be for you. Perfection costs money.

Once I’ve determined that the body damage is acceptable, then I look to see if it is a manual- or automatic-transmission car. If you have nothing else to go by, you’ll have to discern this from photos of the interior.

I look at all the photos and try to get a general feel of the car’s condition prior to the accident. Was the car kept clean? Are the tires good? Are the wheels clean? This will tell you if the owner was above average or an abusive slob. 

Stains on the seats and junky carpets are giveaways that a car was ridden hard and put away wet most of its life–not what I’m looking for. Copart shows a close-up photo of each car’s speedometer, and I look for trash/food/dog hairs/junk at the base of the clear speedometer cover. Cleanliness in this area often reflects a well-tended car. (Look closely at your own and see if you pass the test.)

I have physically visited numerous lots to inspect these types of vehicles and I can tell you that even though the companies generally clean the cars up a bit, a lot of people are slobs. Or, perhaps more accurately, a lot of people who get their cars totaled are slobs. 

Some cars smell so bad that you would not want them, so look for signs that the owner was at least a member of the human race. If you can’t stand a car that’s been smoked in, examine the photos for stains on the headliner and around the ashtray. 

A photo of the underhood area can reveal a lot, too. What color is the brake fluid? Clear and clean in both the brake and clutch master cylinder show me a car that is well cared for. If the car has an OE-brand battery, I rejoice–this usually shows the owner was going to the dealer for all the services and may have followed all the maintenance schedules. 

I inspect the bolts that secure the top of the shocks or struts, too. Rust here can reveal a car that lived its life in the dreaded salt belt or near a large body of salt water. 

If the car has front-end damage, look at the radiator core support. Did the damage go all the way into the structure of the car, or was it limited to the front bumper?

If the car you are eyeing is at a remote location, keep in mind that there are local inspectors you can hire for $50 to $100. The auction websites list links to these sorts of services. Going this route can take a lot of the risk out of the equation. 

6. Set Your Price

Don’t fall in love with a car that will need too much work. I realize that all of us are in recovery when it comes to buying cars we shouldn’t, but do be very careful about your total budget.

Do go for it, within limits, if you find exactly the car you’ve always wanted–color, options, etc.–and the damage is not too severe. There is no such thing as a used car factory, so getting a model that exactly fits your list of requirements might be worth more to you. 

Be aware that when the pre-bidding starts to climb out of your comfort zone, you will probably use a couple of justifications to cloud your judgment. Mine are “Nothing has to be invented here, it’s just work replacing parts until it’s fixed” and “Hey, this car’s going to be less work than that kit car I wanted to get.”

The best strategy is to avoid attending the live auctions online. Live auctions can be exciting to the point of being stressful, and I prefer to set my limit objectively, so I put in my maximum bid and then go about my business. If I get an email after the auction that says I’ve won, it’s a great surprise. 

The key for me is to keep the emotion out of it. On my second auction I was outbid on the car I wanted for my daughter; then I wrongly chased another guy up the bidding tree on a lesser car, just to get something out of the auction. 

I ended up spending about $500 too much for a car I would have not considered before the auction. This is why auctions work and make money for the house–emotions can cloud your judgment and cause to you to overbid, 50 bucks at a time. 

Finally, don’t overlook fees when you’re setting a target price. Every auction house charges for the right to win a bid on a car; fees are similar for both Copart and IAA. These include a charge for bidding online (about $50) and one for getting the car moved from the lot to the front of the building for you to pick it up (around $30). 

Also, note that percentage-wise, fees are higher on lower-dollar cars. Figure about $250 for a $500 car, but only about $400 on a $2000 hammer price.

7. Make Sure You Can Title It

Getting your salvage vehicle titled and registered can be ever so simple–or nearly impossible. Know your state’s laws: In my home state of North Carolina, you can register a car with a North Carolina Salvage Title instantly once you’ve won your auction, and be legal that day, no inspections are required. 

Registering a car in North Carolina that has a title from another state requires the vehicle to be examined by a state inspector. This involves playing phone tag with the two or so people per county who are paid to do inspections, setting an appointment, and getting them to fill out a form that says your car can be made road-worthy again. 

Other states may require you to tow your car to an inspection station, show the before and after photos, and/or pay a fee to get clearance to put the car back on the road again. Check with your state’s requirements, as the burden can be quite onerous. In many cases you will have to have your ducks in a row and pay fees that you need to anticipate. 

Be aware that some states (Florida, for example) issue a Certificate of Destruction for any salvage vehicle that they deem irretrievably damaged. It appears to be impossible to legally obtain a title for a car with this sort of black mark on its history, so a donor vehicle with a clear title would have to be found and used as the chassis for a complete swap-over of the usable parts. 

Again, this may not be an issue if your purchase is going to be a track-only or race car that you will not be registering for street use.

8. Get It Home

Once you win your auction, you will have around three days to pay (which can be done online with a credit card, in the case of Copart) and then pick up your car. If you don’t get your car within five business days after you win the auction, a $20 per day fee is charged to your account. 

These companies are only open on weekdays (and take holidays), so you have to work out getting to the lot before 5 p.m. on a weekday to pick up your car, or else arrange to have it towed for you.

One nice feature that most auction houses offer is the option of paying your winning bid at any of their locations in the country, then having a friend (that you designate) pick up your car along with the paperwork at another location. That gives you some flexibility in getting the car home.

I have found this works well because A, friends usually love to help you buy something new–it’s not their money, after all–and B, misery loves company, so they can commiserate if it all goes to heck in a handbasket once you’ve actually seen the car. 

I have been lucky enough to drive some of my winning bids off the lot and all the way home without incident, but others needed to be towed. I expected it in those cases and accounted for the towing fees in my target bid. 

If you’ve won a car that fits in the Runs and Drives category, ask them to drive the car out to you. Otherwise, it will be unceremoniously delivered by a forklift doing who-knows-what to your undercarriage. Remember, to most customers these are parts cars, and they are treated accordingly.

9. Fix It

At Georgia Tech we have many sayings, including this one: “An engineer can do for a dollar what any dang fool could do for 20.”

So think like an engineer and be strategic with your repairs. Discover which parts were affected by the accident. Fix the structural components first to make sure the suspension is well supported. Then fix the suspension, which generally takes a hit in a wreck. 

Make sure the wheels didn’t suffer damage during the collision. Go through the brakes, and make sure the drivetrain is not damaged. 

Get all of this done before you tackle the bodywork. Don’t forget to change all the fluids (every one of them) for a fresh start. 

This is an anonymous car and you got it inexpensively, so don’t be stingy. 

Generally speaking, it costs less to replace a part than repair it. If you search correctly–your local pick-and-pull, eBay, Craigslist and so on–you might even luck into the correct part in the correct color. Another great source for used parts is, an excellent network of wrecking yards. 

If you find yourself in over your head with a particular task, farm it out. Since you are a reader of GRM, I bet you can get the car running and drivable so you can put it back on the road. The final touches to make it pretty can be sub-contracted to a body shop, but I’d encourage you to do the work yourself. 

Most skills can be mastered with a little practice, or at least learned to a level that will let you create a presentable result. If you want to do the paint yourself, get the equipment and go to your local automotive paint store for advice–these folks have always been a wealth of knowledge for my projects. Ask a lot of questions. And remember, the good thing about paint is that you can always sand it off and try again.

Buying a totaled car can be a great way to start a project. Just keep in mind that if you find yourself bidding against a guy from North Carolina for a first-generation Miata, back off. That will be me.

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hotchocolate Reader
6/21/18 9:39 p.m.

Great article! I just tried my hand at auctions this week. I missed it by $50. (128i with sport package). This has given me great insight going forward. Thank you for sharing your experience. 

6/22/18 4:42 a.m.

This was a great article. I am going to be using some of this for a non profit organization coming along.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Digital Experience Director
6/22/18 1:18 p.m.

Love this article!

6/22/18 1:52 p.m.

I purchased a 1987 Porsche 924S with 46K miles for $900 as a totaled insurance car.  The car suffered a fuel line leak in the rubber pressure hose going to the injector rail, and the underhood wiring harness, rubber bits, and a spot on the hood were damaged.  I had to replace the bits that burned and repaint the hood - that's it.  I also replaced the front seats with matching power seats from a later 944 just for effect, although it was not needed.

In the end I got a car that was pretty nice.  The photo is from the 70th Birthday of Porsche last week at the dealership in Orlando.  There is a complete writeup on the project at


frenchyd SuperDork
6/22/18 2:45 p.m.

In reply to Tom Suddard : I’d like to blame you guys for the hours I’ve spent on Co-part and IAA  sites finding pieces of my next race car.  

I’d like to but the truth is I’ve enjoyed the process.  


ckosacranoid SuperDork
6/26/18 1:01 p.m.

damn you for giving me ideas for this. I might have to really start looking on their for the next few rides. i know I think when I read this last time I singed up for copoart....damn you guys for ruining my life when it comes to cars. I can not look at super cars or other high end stuff with out thinking about beating them challenge style.

frenchyd SuperDork
6/26/18 9:03 p.m.

Regardless of the color in the photograph  I’m surprised at how few seem to share my excitement over the chance to buy cars fresh from the wrecking yards.  

I spend far too much time  on those sites selecting, calculating, deciding, occasionally bidding. 

Looking for a particular model but often distracted and dreaming of others.  

I look not just for a car but parts for a car.  If I can buy that one I’ll take the brakes and supercharger off it and still be able to scrap it, or maybe sell the remains to the guy who specializes in that brand.  

Or maybe combine two cars into one whole car?  Take that flood car and that wrecked car use the wiring and soft good from the wreck and the body and other pieces from the flood car to come up with a really cool whole car

hotchocolate Reader
10/6/18 9:29 p.m.

So this happened.  First vehicle i have purchased without an inspection or test drive. 1997 LS400. I bid 275 and forgot about it. I ended up winning. With fees and registration it came to about 675. Not sure what I am going to do with it since i wasnt expecting to win--but I digress. It has 212K miles and moves under its own power. It needs a front fender some brake and exhaust work and a hunting idle issue fixed (iacv?). Timing belt is also due.  Heat works and AC seems to work. Interior is about a 5/10 and it has some rust on the rear wheel arches. Thanks to you all I checked another thing off my car related list. Obligatory craigslist style picture attached. 

dculberson UltimaDork
10/8/18 9:29 a.m.

In reply to hotchocolate :

Dude, enjoy a pimpin' ride, and when it needs more than you're willing to spend on it, you can make good money parting it out.

dean1484 GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
10/8/18 10:00 a.m.

I deleted my three posts re the photoshopped photo. After reading them they really did not add any content to this thread. 

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