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How To Buy A Salvage-Title Jeep

Posted in Project Vehicles on November 1, 2011
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Contributors: Doc Arthur

Craigslist and other dump-your-junk-for-cash websites offer a great way to grab some deals or get rid of some unwanted junk. Unfortunately, sites like these can also be a playground for scammers trying to take advantage of unwary bargain hunters. They’re not hard to spot. An ‘05 Dodge Viper with minor damage for $10,000! Wow, you better jump on that. Thing is, the seller also has it for sale on eBay, so you’d better act fast before the auction ends! But wait, this swell dunghoarder will stop the auction if you PayPal him a $1,000 deposit and give him the remaining balance at delivery. What a guy, eh? You could spend all day flagging great deals to warn other perspective buyers that a decent TJ with low miles for $1,500 is probably a lie. The ads all read the same. “I’d list my phone number, but I can’t take calls at work,” or “The car is stored in Fargo, North Dakota.” The courts are full of people who bought a car sight unseen and forgot the “buyer beware” mantra. But once in a while, if you know what to look for and if you can stand the BS, an ad turns out to be as real as the Motor City.

We immediately called on a two-door ’07 Wrangler Sport for $5,000 as soon as the ad posted. The long list of damage told a grim tale of a vehicle that had been smacked in an icy intersection. The impact sent the Jeep spinning into a curb. The vehicle finally came to rest against a stop sign, which left a perfect imprint from the rocker to the rain gutter on the Freedom Top. The Jeep dealer wrote up a five-page estimate that came close to Charlie Sheen’s average drink tab. The line items and description scared the previous owners enough never to set foot in the Sport again. You couldn’t tell from the outside, but there was a lot of tedious work that needed to be done in addition to the obvious body wrinkles. Everything from frame damage and bent axleshafts to fender flares and door handles were listed for replacement or repair. At least the problems were documented. We tried to haggle, but apparently we were call number 501 that hour, and the owner wasn’t having it. Who gives a crap; it’s a runner with 33,000 miles on it. We gladly handed over 5,000 samolians, but not before calling Mike Salisbury at Collins Bros Jeep to find out how to get the real story on a salvaged Jeep. Collins Bros Jeep has its very own Jeep graveyard and stacks of used parts in the back lot, so the company is well versed in dealing with totaled and salvaged-vehicle transactions.

Keep in mind that not all deals are this sweet, and there are a ton of wrecked JKs for sale. The problem is that making a wrecked JK right (or even drivable) can often wind up costing you more in terms of time and money than if you bought a clean vehicle in decent shape. Don’t forget that most often you’re buying the crumpled can from someone else who has gone through the same calculations. It’s best to grab a vehicle from somebody who would rather have a $10,000 check from the insurance company plus your $5,000 than repair a Jeep that will never be the same. Another good opportunity is a purchase from a poor soul who didn’t have insurance at all but needs the cash. In both of these instances, you’ll probably get a clear title rather than a salvaged or rebuilt title. Salvage titles dramatically affect resale value and some insurance companies won’t touch ’em. But either way, make sure you check out the following before handing over your cash.

Body and Frame
Fortunately, for the most part Wranglers are easy to work on. The problem rears its fugly melon with damage you can’t easily see. It’s clear that frame tweaks are bad and may be a death sentence. There are multiple crush zones that are meant to fold upon impact. In fact, the frame on a Wrangler tends to bow downward with impact, leaving the center of the Jeep slightly lower than the rest of the vehicle, which makes it nearly impossible to get a hardtop back on. Frame pulls are expensive and with modern hydroformed frames, the process is like making a crumpled piece of aluminum foil smooth again. Of course, if the kink is in an area that doesn’t affect the steering or axle alignment or if the damage is minimal, the frame can be stretched by a shop without too much cost. Either way, plan on spending some time underneath your prospect. Our Jeep has a small bend in the frame, but it’s not visible and hopefully won’t affect its roadworthiness.

We pulled this pile of parts from the JK after we towed it home. Unfortunately, we didn’t thoroughly check to see what was there and what was missing. We probaby left some usable parts at the dealership.

Most of the metal body panels on a Wrangler are as flat as Paris Hilton’s chest. That’s good because it makes for easy repair. Paint on the other hand can get costly. It will be up to you how perfect it needs to be. Small dents that don’t affect how the hood and doors close give character. Besides, if you go wheelin’ you’re gonna end up with lots of small dents anyway. Also, it’s possible to cover some damage with rocker guards or body armor. Dents at seams and locations where the metal has been stamped into shape, such as the door jams, can be difficult to straighten out and you want the door and window seals to hold. Take a peek at the gaps in the body. Are they relatively equal? Do hinged parts open and close properly? How much glass is wasted? If the Wrangler has a hardtop with slight damage, it’s probably repairable unless it looks like it was used to break a 100-foot fall. If it is toast, a soft-top may be in order to save a few bucks.

PhotosView Slideshow

Suspension, Steering, and Axles
We found three very bent rims that look like they’d been driven in Mexico without tires. They’re cause for concern because the force travels through the hub and into the axle and differential. For all you know the impact could have also caused cracks and misalignment in the transfer case and transmission as well. Look closely at wheel and tire damage. It can tell you a lot about what the vehicle went through during the accident. We crawled under the Jeep to find that the lower link mount to the front axle is bent beyond repair. The bent mount pulled the right side of the axle back an inch or two, but the housing itself looked straight. On flat ground, the front sway bar links should be close to parallel. There’s probably something wrong if they’re not. If the vehicle drives, the steering wheel shouldn’t be cocked when traveling straight roads. If damage is severe, you’ll find yourself fighting the wheel and if equipped with electronic stability control (ESC) the ESC light will be flashing like a teenybopper at a Justin Bieber concert due to improper steering input. Front-end hits are common and costly, so really look over the steering and linkages.

If the vehicle drives, the steering wheel should be straight or nearly straight. It’s easy to fake this if someone adjusts the tie rod enough to realign. Look closely at the adjustments points for shiny tie rod end threads that would indicate recent work.

Interior and Underhood
When the radiator is pressed against the engine and airbags are blown, it really doesn’t matter what you think is salvageable. Plan for the worst before making an offer. There will undoubtedly be invisible issues. Most of us don’t have the expertise of an insurance adjuster and even an A/C service and recharge is expensive. If the car was rolled on its side or upside down and the engine continued to run, oil starvation could severely damage or completely grenade the engine. Also, too much water could hydro-lock the cylinders causing piston or rod damage. Check the air box and air filter for watermarks, mud, and debris. The NVH pad on the underside of the hood is also a good indicator of use and the engine oil shouldn’t look like a chocolate milkshake. If someone drowned the rig, it will be fairly obvious.

The air box is a great place to find flood damage and to see how the vehicle was cared for. If the box is too clean, it should raise your concern, but slightly dirty is normal. Of course, check the air filter to make sure it’s Mr. Clean white on the engine-side.

Pull up a section of the interior carpet in the footwell and feel for dampness or a crunchy feeling that would indicate it had dried out after being soaked. Flooding can spell a total write-off, especially if it’s combined with other damage. On the other hand, it could mean someone left the windows down while the vehicle was in outdoor storage. The stitching on the rollbar padding is an easy place to spot evidence of a flood recovery since the thread will brown a bit where it was exposed to dirty water. Search multiple locations for proof. If the car doesn’t start or turn over, that’s another bad sign with invisible consequences. Don’t fall for “Oh, it just needs a new battery,” or “The ground strap came loose in the accident.” If that’s the case, hook up a set of jumper cables; you want to see it run or at least turn over. Knowing the Jeep has functional electrical is infinitely important. If it turns over but doesn’t start, check the EVIC display and diagnostic lights to see if they’re giving any indication of the vehicle’s condition. Listen for fuel pump whine and injector firing. The problem may be a fuel line that was kinked, clogged,or cut in the wreck.

Work the steering wheel, pedals, and shifter for looseness or improper function. Check the seat mounts. If the hit was really hard, they’ll be bent from trying to hold an overweight driver and/or passengers from flying out the window. Also, look for rodent droppings. Vermin can make a mess and love to create homes in immobile vehicles. It’s likely that a wrecked rig has sat in one place for quite some time. Shops need to write an estimate, insurance adjusters have to get out to the car to agree with the assessment, owners have to wait for a check, or it could be the subject of an ongoing police investigation. Our lot lizard sat in the back of a dealership for more than a month before we hauled it away. Brake rotors rust quickly and can reveal how long the vehicle has been parked, so if someone can’t give you an honest answer, it’s a good clue. Depending on where you purchase your Jeep, make sure you get all the parts that were previously attached, including those that may be damaged. You may be not be concerned about a scratch in the spare tire carrier, but if a dealer has the car in limbo for an insurance claim, they’ll have taken off anything that can be attributed to the accident with a plan to replace or repair it. We made the mistake of not asking if anything was missing. Two factory fender liners and some door seals won’t be cheap.

Have a Plan
Not much of this matters much if you plan on using your new basket case as a dedicated off-road vehicle or at least one that doesn’t need to safely go down the highway at 75 mph. Wrecked Wranglers are great starting points for committed trail rigs that are going to get new axles and suspension, or maybe even a V-8. Most of us start with the intention of building a daily driver/mild trail rig that the wife or girlfriend would approve of. But after creating piles of busted parts and experiencing a heckling session from your buddies because you’re stuck, again, we tend to migrate towards lift kits, 35s or larger tires, and lockers to turn our once-tame street Jeep into a black diamond wagon.

Diagnostic lights (idiot lights) can give you an idea of what’s going on. If they don’t turn on at all, it could be worse than if all of them are on. Simple parts like O2 sensors or wheel speed sensors can trip one or more lights.
PhotosView Slideshow

State-by-State Cautions
Feature Editor Robin Stover owns a salvage-title JK and warns about the following:
Each state has a strict process that owners of salvage-title vehicles must go through to get the vehicle registered and legal to drive on state roads again. With my ’07 JK in California, it was a pain. In addition to the typical smog check, I had to have a brake and lamp inspection done by a state-authorized inspection station. I then had to take the vehicle by trailer to the California Highway Patrol inspection station for a formal inspection by a CHP officer. They ran a magnet over every body part and even made me fix a cracked windshield and remove the tint from the front passenger windows before they would sign off on it. Requirements vary from state to state, so we recommend that you investigate your state requirements for that part of the process before purchasing.


Collins Bros Jeep

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