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Junk Cars: Does Your Car Have to Be Considered Junk to Junk It?

Marc Skirvin
Marc Skirvin

Table of Contents

The United States was home to a staggering 284.5 million registered vehicles back in 2019. By the end of 2020, experts project this to grow to 287.3 million registered vehicles.

Those figures are impressive enough as-is, but they don’t paint the whole picture. For starters, the US scraps at least 10 to 15 million vehicles each year, according to earlier studies. A huge chunk of this consists of junk cars, while many others are vehicles that reach the end of their service life.

These imply that the US is home to potentially millions of unregistered automobiles. After all, inoperable cars and junk vehicles don’t require registration.

So, if you own a really old car yourself, you may be wondering if it already classifies as “junk.” What is a junk car, anyway, and is there even a legal definition for such automobiles? If your ride turns out to be “non-junk,” can you still sell it to an auto salvage yard?

We’ll address all these questions in this guide, so be sure to read on!

What Is a Junk Car?

The definition and laws surrounding junk automobiles are all in the 49 USCS § 30501. It classifies these vehicles as “inoperable of operating” on public traffic ways. These include any public street, road, or highway.

The law also defines junk automobiles as those that no longer have any value except as scrap or source of parts.

If your vehicle meets both requirements, there’s no question that it’s legally a junk car.

Is My Car Considered Junk Under Specific Laws?

Some states have more specific and stringent junk car classifications. For example, Montana requires junk vehicles to meet a three-part definition. These include the following:

  1. Discarded, dismantled, ruined, or wrecked
  2. Not holding a current and valid license
  3. Incapable of letting you operate it

So, if you live in the Treasure State, your automobile classifies as “junk” if it meets all three of the above. You also need to shield a vehicle that meets this three-part definition from public view. The same law applies to any vehicle component that satisfies the three conditions.

Failure to meet such regulations can lead to hefty civil fines starting from $50 a day. Montana junk car laws also allow for up to a 30-day imprisonment term, on top of which is a $250 penalty.

Do note that some cities even impose age ranges when it comes to classifying junk cars. An example is Richland, WA, wherein a car can already be a junk vehicle if it’s three years or older! However, it must also meet at least two other criteria for it to be legally junk.

Suppose your car is over three years old and has extensive damage, such as broken windows. It also has no valid, current registration. In this case, the City of Richland, WA, is likely to consider it a junk automobile.

Does My Car Have to Be Junk for a Yard to Accept It?

Not at all! Today, some junk car and auto salvage yards are also cash-for-car businesses. This means that you can sell your car to them regardless of the vehicle’s current condition.

If you have an inoperable vehicle, a cash-for-car buyer can go to your location to pick it up for you. However, if your vehicle still runs, it’s best to bring it to the yard yourself. This can help boost the overall offer you can get for your ride.

What Non-Junk Vehicles Can You “Junk”?

You can sell all types of cars in any kind of condition to a cash-for-car salvage yard. They accept totaled, flooded, lemon, slightly-damaged, and old beaters that still run. Even if these vehicles don’t meet the legal definition of “junk,” it’s easy to sell them to the right auto salvage yard.

Totaled Vehicles

A totaled car is a car that has sustained damage so significant that the cost to repair it exceeds its value. Many states implement specific thresholds on these repair-to-value ratios.

For example, Wisconsin considers a vehicle as “totaled” if the cost to fix the damage is worth over 70% of its value. Suppose your car’s current value is $10,000, but you have to pay $7,500 to repair it. In this case, your auto insurer is likely to declare your ride as a total loss vehicle.

A totaled car is still different from a junk car in that you can still fix the former. It’s just that it’s too expensive to do so. For this reason, you may want to consider junking your total loss vehicle instead.

This may be a smarter alternative to accepting your auto insurer’s salvage offer. Many car insurance companies undervalue total-loss vehicles, so they often have low-ball offers.

Things can get pretty worse for car owners without comprehensive or collision coverage. 22% of drivers don’t have comprehensive coverage, and 24% don’t have collision coverage. If you’re one of these folks, your insurer won’t help to pay for the cost of replacing a total-loss vehicle.

A reputable cash-for-car buyer will buy your car, no matter its condition. They may also give you a bigger paycheck; the more salvageable parts, the higher the offer.

Flooded Automobiles

Recent industry reports say that there are at least 446,000 flood vehicles on US roads. This can grow by at least 5,000 more due to the disaster brought by Hurricane Laura that occurred in August 2020.

In any case, a flood vehicle, also known as a flood-damaged automobile, is a water-damaged car. Its submersion in water has led to its engine, transmission, or body sustaining damage. The damage could be so severe that it can also classify as a total-loss vehicle.

In other cases, the flood damage isn’t so bad that the cost to repair the car is less than its value. It’s fine to repair it and then continue using it for personal transportation. You may have to spend thousands, though, especially if the entire car got submerged in water.

Things are more complex if you want to sell a flooded vehicle, as there are strict regulations. Most states mandate vehicle titles to stipulate existing flood damage.

To acquire that title, you must first bring the car back to its pre-flood condition. You then have to apply for a flood or salvage title, which can be pretty tedious. Of course, the application process also involves filing fees. 

All that makes repairing severe flood car damage impractical. You’re likely better off selling it to a reputable auto salvage yard instead.

Please be sure that you sell a flood car only to a licensed and insured auto salvage company. This way, you can be sure that they will follow proper titling or dismantling protocols. 

Many consumers have already reported purchasing flood-damaged vehicles unknowingly. According to victims, the seller didn’t disclose the fact that the car had flood damage. This kind of non-disclosure is illegal in many states.

Lemon Cars

Automakers have had to recall over 13 million vehicles within the first half of 2020 alone. Toyota leads the rank, with recalls reaching 3.9 million units. Ford ranks second, recalling a million less than Toyota, but still a heaping 2.9 million units.

Strict regulations are in place for such recalls to help ensure the safety of consumers. For example, carmakers must either repair or replace the recalled car or provide a refund. This is part of the lemon law that all US states enforce.

However, consumers have a short window of time to report their purchase as a lemon. For example, Illinois lemon laws only apply to new cars that haven’t been in use for more than a year or over 12,000 miles. Neither does it apply to used vehicles that could have also classified as lemons.

Lemon cars don’t necessarily need to meet the definition of junk vehicles. Their defects may make them unsafe, but fixing these issues may still make them operable. However, like totaled or flooded vehicles, lemon cars are often expensive to repair.

In this case, you can have the lemon vehicle sold as a junk car instead. Reputable yards will ensure your lemon car goes through proper dismantling or repairs. This is also an easier way to get cash for a lemon car that can otherwise take months to fix and sell on your own.


In 2020, the average age of light vehicles in the US rose to 11.9 years, a 0.10 increase from 2019. This implies that more US car owners are doing their part in keeping their beaters buzzing. On the flip side, many other vehicles are in disrepair and may already be a crash risk.

2020 estimates do show a rise in fatality rates per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT). For example, for the first half of 2020, the average fatality rate was 1.25 per 100 million VMT. That’s in comparison to the 1.06 rate for the first half of 2019.

Aging vehicles may be contributing to these road incidents. After all, it’s not uncommon for them to have impaired performance and safety. They may still run, which makes them non-junk, but they can still be a road hazard.

If your car has seen far better days and it’s nearing its 10th birthday, it may be time to junk it. Your wallet and the environment are sure to be grateful.

A Vehicle That Keeps Failing Tests

Were you aware that owners of non-EPA compliant vehicles or engines can get fined over $45,000? That can even be a per-day penalty!

That’s because these heavy fines aim to help minimize environmental pollution. After all, the majority of air pollutants do come from combustion engines. More than half of nitrogen oxides, a greenhouse gas source, comes from transportation.

Vehicles are also chief sources of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants. These contribute to global warming and the development and worsening of health conditions. At the very least, these contaminants make both indoor and outdoor air stink.

For this reason, vehicle emissions tests have become the law on a federal and state level. If your car fails this test, your state DMV will pull it out of service. You need to get your vehicle fixed before you can have its registration reinstated.

However, it’s not uncommon for vehicles to fail emissions tests multiple times. Sometimes, the first re-test is free. If it fails the re-test, though, you would need to pay for the subsequent procedures.

On top of these fees are the costs associated with emissions repairs. You can easily spend a thousand dollars or more to fix a faulty emission system.

If your car has problems outside of its emission control system, you can expect higher costs. In this case, it may be more practical and cost-effective just to sell your ride to a cash-for-car buyer.

A Car You No Longer Want to See or Ride

In many cases, car owners can’t let go of old or aging rides due to sentimental value. However, some also want to get rid of their cars due to bad memories. Regardless of your reason, selling that vehicle to a yard is the easiest way to get rid of it.

Remember, reputable auto salvage yards will purchase your vehicle as-is. This means that you don’t have to do any kind of repair on it if you don’t want to. They can also haul it away for you at your own convenience.

Junking Isn’t Only for Junk Cars

There you have it, your most comprehensive guide to junk cars and what makes a vehicle “junk.” Now, you know how the law defines junk automobiles and what can happen if they don’t get disposed of properly. However, you should keep in mind that reputable auto salvage yards can also buy a non-junk car anytime.

So, no matter your vehicle’s condition, consider reaching out to an auto salvage yard near you.

Ready to learn how much you can get for your ride? Then please feel free to request your free car value estimate now!

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About the Author


Marc is the Co-Founder of Cash Auto Salvage and Director of daily operations. He retired from a leading Internet Marketing company in 2013 and has been involved in the automotive industry ever since.

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