By on May 5, 2016


car title. shutterstock user Sergey Yechikov

Darrick writes:

Hey Sajeev,

First of all, I want to say that I enjoy your articles and your love of Panther and Fox body Fords. (Woot! —SM)

I’m writing to you about my 2005 Ford Focus SE ZX4 in the hope that you may give me some guidance.

I moved to the east coast (southeastern Virginia) from the Midwest in 2008. A year later, I received a brutal lesson in what coastal flooding can do to a neighborhood and when said flooding finds its way into a vehicle. My Focus sustained $3,500 in damages, and nearly all that amount was due to airbag and seatbelt system damage. I had insurance, so I was only out of my $100 deductible, but the damage cost was such that I now have a branded title due to flood damage.

I didn’t try to force the insurance company to total it. At the time, I was simply happy to have the car repaired and I didn’t really want to find (and finance) another car. I resolved to drive the thing until the wheels fall off. All this happened at 73,000 or so miles and a month after I paid it off.

Surprisingly, I’ve only identified a bad window regulator and shift selector as ‎caused by latent flood damage. I suspect I could drive it awhile before expensive problems start to creep up. However, I’m close to passing my 10th year of owning it, the odometer is approaching 148,000 miles, and I’m starting to pine for something new.

Naturally, the branded title ‎is presenting a problem. If I finally decide to part with the car, what would you do if you were me? Should I just take what little I can get on trade-in, sell it myself, drive it to Pick ‘n Pull, or donate it? Perhaps there is a solution I haven’t considered? In all cases, I’m certain I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) fail to disclose the status of the title.

In pure dollars-and-cents terms, I should just continue driving it, but I’m curious to know what you think.

Sajeev answers:

That thrill is gone for all of us at some point.

You covered all the bases, but there’s no way to know which gives you the most cash in cases of a branded title. You must get an estimate from each group; market values change all the time. It’s safe to say that the junkyard will be the lowest, unless there’s an unlikely glut of Focus drivers and not enough parts in your area.

Your first step is to get an appraisal from a local dealer or a Carmax. Dealers usually meet or beat Carmax to get a sale, but wait until you’ve negotiated the final price of the new car before playing that card. With that number in hand, sell it on Craigslist for a price that would make it worth your while. Consider the extra time involved (your time is money!) and the tax savings you get from lowering the price of your new car from the trade-in value.  If the numbers don’t add up, delete the Craigslist posting.

Car donations are something I have yet to experience, so be weary of the organization. This handy article notes that you can no longer donate a vehicle for market value, unless said charity gives the vehicle to someone to aid in their charity work: maybe like this place.

Do you know an accountant? Ask one about the charity angle, but you’ll never get around that branded title.

My advice is to enjoy that Focus for as long as possible: one trip to Carmax will likely prove my point.

[Image: Shutterstock user Sergey Yechikov]

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice. 

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45 Comments on “Piston Slap: Branded Title = Scarlet Letter?...”

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    Turn it into a 24 Hours of Lemons car. There is no bad outcome this way.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    How much is a 2005 Focus with 148,000 miles worth in Virginia anyway? Around here the ask would max-out at $1500, and the price would be based on obvious needs (tires, brakes, rust) more than anything else.

    A branded title will net you less, but the difference shouldn’t be more than a few hundred. You should focus on your next ride (as it were), any dealer that wants your business will work the old car into the deal.

  • avatar

    Sell it on Craigslist. You wouldn’t get much on tradein for an 11 year old Focus even with a clean title, and the low priced market is hungry for cars. When I was ready to replace my then 12 year old Focus, the dealer offered me $1000 for it and I sold it on Craigslist the first day it was listed for $2500.

    Alternatively, if you don’t want to do the Craigslist thing, see if there is an open to the public auto auction.

    • 0 avatar

      This is the perfect Craigslist car. Disclose everything, be physically safe in the test drive and transaction, and get paid in actual paper bills. You’ll get less grief from the people wanting to give low-ball offers since the car can’t go too much lower.

    • 0 avatar

      Just sold my 2004 Lancer Sportback Ralliart yesterday on Craigslist less than 24 hours after posting, and this for a non-operable car (ironically, the timing belt went “zing” the same day I posted somewhere else here on TTAC on how great the car had been, and introduced the pistons to the valves). It is the Wild West on CL, but if priced right, things move quickly on CL, even if the car has issues. It sounds like the value of the car won’t be much different across the board, so if you can put up with some of the, um, less than brilliant buyers that frequent CL, I’d post it there and sell it quick. Time is money, as has been said already…

    • 0 avatar

      This is perfect Craigslist fodder: a relatively cheap car that looks good and runs well. Single moms/working poor/students won’t worry about the title issue as long as the car checks out OK.

      There are good reasons that any offers from dealers/wholesale prices will be low: most dealers won’t want it because there ins not enough markup in it to make retailing it worthwhile, and the branded title adds some risk.

      Detail it, take lots of pictures, put it on CL in the mid $2000’s and see what happens. Be sure to mention no seller financing, payment by cash or cashiers check from local banks only, and only hold the car if you get a $500 non refundable deposit. Have a Bill of Sale (that clearly states no warranty given or implied) on your computer ready to be completed, printed, and signed.

      Let us know what you end up doing.

      • 0 avatar


        a personal thank you for managing to describe “single moms / working poor / students” without putting them down. I cringe every time a TTAC author talks about “credit criminals.”

        • 0 avatar

          Nick, I’ve been both a student and working poor (my Y chromosome kept me from being a single mom); I’m not about to look down my nose at somebody who needs economical transportation and is willing and able to pay cash to do so.

          A credit criminal is somebody who wants to use their $2000 in cash to buy a $10k car, then make the payments erratically or not at all. Bonus points if you finance a 15+ year old luxury ride.

    • 0 avatar

      If you do decide to craigslist it get yourself a cheap burner phone. I brother in law tells me that when he sold his 350,000 mile Volvo station wagon the worst part was not dealing with the hordes of fraudsters etc that flock to the craigslist autos adds but with the knot on evict of having his phone number on the add… in the end he had to get his number changed and the hassle that entails.

      • 0 avatar

        There are apps you can use to generate an ip-based number through your phone that you can turn off after you’re done.

        I use my google voice number exclusively for my craigslist selling, and just turn off the phone forwarding option when the sales process is complete. nobody ever gets my actual phone number.

      • 0 avatar

        “knot on evict”

        Um… what?

        • 0 avatar

          auto Speel Chucker typing on my phone sorry… I did not catch it when I posted it should be Knock on effect…

          thanks for the info on the IP phone numbers Duffman13 first I have hears of that.

        • 0 avatar

          “knot on evict”

          Ducking autocorrect strikes again! Ducking^H^H^H^H^H^H Duck^H^H^H^H Fuc aww, forget it.

  • avatar

    That Focus has hit a point where clear and salvage values are not far apart. The auction results show an average of $1300-1500 wholesale for a clear title Focus with similar miles so you would not get much more than that even if it was clear. Selling it with disclosure of the history could likely net you around $1000. Scrapping it might get you $250 if you are lucky.

    • 0 avatar

      In 2014, I sold a 2002 ZX3 5 speed with 130,000 miles for $2500, and I could have sold five of them if I’d had them. He may get a little more than that wholesale value on the Craigslist market.

      Price it at $2200, you can always lower it if it doesn’t sell.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Electrical fire resulting in a total insurance loss. A flood car would be a good candidate since latent damage to the electrical system may take years to show up.

  • avatar

    Skip the dealer trade. A Focus with a branded title would be so low their valuation computers would probably not even process an estimate. If it did, you’d probably get a quote somewhere between chewing gum and and the cost of a used Xbox.

    Craigslist is an option to sell the car whole, but you’ll have to weed out fraudsters and time wasters.

    When I was in the situation you were (selling a domestic car with over 200K miles on it) , I stripped it to the frame and sold the parts piecemeal. What was left got carted off to the Pick N Pull. Selling the car by itself may have netted $1500 bucks. By selling the hood, aftermarket radio, wheels+tires , windows and doors I made just over $2000. No title or other BS purchasing paperwork to deal with either.

  • avatar

    i would ask 1,000 or 1,500 on craigslist. Those cars arent worth much even without the branded title issue.

    • 0 avatar

      I sold a 2000 Jetta – couldn’t get more base, 2 liter manual with 133k miles – three years ago for a stout $3,300. I recommend listing it for $2,300. You’ll likely walk away with $1,750 or so. My guess is a working mom.

  • avatar

    Keep driving that thing until the wheels fall off. You’re enjoying incredibly inexpensive transportation (not much maintenance, cheap to insure, reasonable on gas). Enjoy the freedom that comes with it for a few more years.

  • avatar

    The title issue would be a bigger deal if you had something with a wider range of potential resale values.

    But like others have said, the car isn’t worth much anyway. If you have the time and stomach for it you’d probably get $1500 – $2500 for it on CL. Otherwise a dealer would probably be about $1000.

    Carmax will likely be at $600.

  • avatar

    You know driving it until it dies is the right option but I can see why you want out after ten years, I would suggest this , keep it but as a winter beater, 2 car. Buy something that may not fit your needs 100 % of a time say I don’t know maybe a 2 door mazda convertible and keep the ford for when you need a beater. The car is not worth much so keeping it will let you have a motorcycle or a sports car as your main vehicle.

  • avatar

    Off topic, but that Focus in the picture is a dead ringer for my (long gone and missed) ’05 ST. Loved that car.

    Anyway, my thinking is this guy got a lot of good years out of that car. Is it worth it to go through the hassle of selling it himself for what will amount to a few hundred bucks? I don’t know.

  • avatar

    Like others have said, a car at this age is worth pretty much the same whether it has a clear title, rebuilt title, or flood title.

    List it just under what others are asking. That ’05 is the facelifted Focus, and they sell around $3k or more around the Detroit area. So try $2900?

    When you talk to folks, steer the conversation toward the fact that the car has been reliable to you for years, and continued to be reliable after the “inciden.”

  • avatar

    I’m surprised that title is branded. If this flooding occured after the vehicle was already paid off (and i supposed owner already had the title to the car), any insurance work doesn’t warrant re-issuing the title. Unless the car was totaled and then re-purchased from the insurance company. Just like in the accident; they can’t take the title from your possession, and re-issue it as branded. The accident/flooding/whatever will show up on car history report, but it shouldn’t affect the title that’s already in someone’s possession. Maybe i’m not understanding something here….

    • 0 avatar

      In many states they gov’t controls such things. Typically they will cancel the title and registration if the cost to repair exceeds 50% of the value of the car.

      I’ve got that letter before and it give a set amount of time to send them the title with “DESTROYED” written across it. So if you want to buy tabs for it you have to send the original title in, and then take the letter instructing you to the State Patrol for an inspection with the receipts for the repairs and parts. They then do a vin check to make sure that everything jives and issue you the paper work to apply for a new title and registration.

      I went though it with a 626 we bought from my wife’s co-worker. Someone had got in the car and slashed most of the seats, door panels, stole knobs ect. I bought it before the state caught up with the paper work and had transferred it into my name already so I was the one that got the canceled title letter.

  • avatar

    Keep it and drive it until it has problems. You will get more than the value out of the vehicle by using it and the depreciation is not going to be a big deal. Buying something else is going to be a min of $200 per month (if you go used) so you are saving $2400 per year min by driving it.

    Save $200 per month and put it in the bank so when the Focus dies, you have money to put on a one year old used vehicle that has taken the brunt of the depreciation – then sell your Focus yourself for $500-$1000 – you’ll be primed to success!

  • avatar

    I had a Cutlass Sierra on Craigslist for sale listed at $900, and it wound up leaking gas the night before someone was going to look at it. He was a good sport, we fixed the leak in my garage and he only asked $100 off the price. I’ve bought and sold plenty if cars on the Craig and as long as you aren’t inviting everyone to your garage, you should be fine. It can actually be fun, if you price it right they will come, if your price is too high, it may never sell.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m glad to hear you say this. I’ve sold a few items on Craigslist, and I don’t see where all the fear and loathing comes from. If you sell a modest to low priced car, you’ll get some texts or emails from lowballers, which you can ignore or politely respond to, your choice. You’ll field a few phone calls from prospective buyers who want more information, some of which will want to see the car and some of which won’t. Probably the biggest annoyance is when someone says they are comping to look but does not. What I would suggest is to post your ad Friday evening and plan on being available most of the day Saturday. I my most recent sale, I had to be somewhere first thing in the morning, and told prospective buyers that I’d be available from 10 AM. The car was sold by 11:30.

  • avatar

    The state of MN gave my Tribute a damaged title because of some almost invisible hail damage on the hood. I was planning on driving it until the wheels fall off anyway.

  • avatar

    A decade-old Focus with 150k on the odometer will fetch 2500 on a really good day. A salvaged one that runs well is still worth an easy $1500 or so in a private sale assuming it’s been kept up on maintenance.

    My advice is to not worry about it. at the price range you’d be selling at, you’re not taking a huge hit in terms of absolute dollars the way a car that might have a $15-20k selling price for a non-branded title would. Just sell it and be done with it, or take the $500 trade-in or carmax offer you get for it.

  • avatar

    How about keeping it and renting it out on Relayrides (or Turo, whatever they call themselves now) for some cheap price. Their insurance will cover a loss and the car isn’t worth much anyway, but you could turn it into a little cash machine renting it to college students wanting to make Costco runs.

  • avatar

    Where has Steve Lang gone? This car could be the start of your own finance company of buy and pay used cars, inc. I have always wondered if an 80% as-agreed rate would be enough to make money?

  • avatar

    Flood damaged branded title is absolutely a scarlet letter. I wouldn’t touch a flood damaged anything.

  • avatar

    Are you sure that the title is branded. Each state has their own rules, but usually for a title to be labeled, the insurance company has to total the car. They theoretically payed to bring the car back to the pre-flood condition. Likely, the only thing you have is a less than clean Carfax. This really won’t affect the value of an old car like this.

    • 0 avatar

      Very true. If the title is not labeled salvage, then agreed this is just a splotchy Carfax. If it is “salvage – flood damage” scarlet letter.

  • avatar

    Don’t forget newspaper want ads.

  • avatar

    A flood car is the absolute worst history a modern car can have.

    Just disclose it and it may be cheap enough people will be okay with it, but I know I would advise people to run away from any car with that history.

  • avatar

    Except that the flood damage was 7 years and 75K miles ago. Anything that was going to happen to it as a result has already happened. As cheap transportation that runs it would work for someone.

  • avatar

    a 10 year old focus with 200k miles on it is a $500 car in my neck of the woods… if it still runs and its payed off, get something new and just drive the focus as a beater until it blows up.

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