A 'brand' is a particular wording on the Certificate of Title or the registration card of a vehicle. The brand indicates a particular history for a vehicle, usually one written-off due to collision, fire or flood damage or has been sold for scrap. Most states put history brands on their titles, but depending on the state, the wording may differ. Some of the words used include Totaled, Reconditioned, Salvaged, Junked, Damaged, Rebuilt, and even Warranty Returned.
The brand is mandatory in most states when a vehicle owner or the insurer of a vehicle writes off a vehicle as a 'total loss.' As a rule, this means the cost of the repairs would be more expensive than the value of the car.
Why is a brand used?
In the U.S., the branding system is in place to warn potential owners of a vehicle about damage to a vehicle due to collision, theft, or disaster. The easiest way to discover if a vehicle has a branded title is to run a vehicle history report.
As the brands can have different labels for different states, these are some titles commonly used in the state of California and several others.
None (also called clear, normal) - has no brand and is a normal, clear title.
Salvage (also called total loss) - this is used for a vehicle that has sustained major damage in a car accident or from a flood, vandalism or other occurence. This will include all vehicles that have been previously junked as well.
Original Police/Taxi (also called fleet) - these vehicles were registered for use in public transportation, daily rental, commercial use, and used by law enforcement personnel and will often have high mileage and above-average wear and tear.
Non-USA - these are vehicles that have been manufactured for use outside of the US and have been converted to meet the US safety and emission standards.
Warranty Return (also called buyback, and lemon) - depending on the state, if a vendor attempts to repair a problem under the new car warranty but fails and the manufacturer or dealer buy back or replace the vehicle, the vehicle is branded as a lemon.
Remanufactured - these are vehicles constructed of used or reconditioned parts. The vehicles are built by a licensed remanufacturer and can be sold under a trade name.
Theft - this term isn't always used as the term denotes a status and not a brand, but when a stolen vehicle is found dismantled, vandalized, or destroyed, they can be branded and may be irreparable.
Wrecked (also called WRK, crushed, baled) - this means the vehicle has been permanently dismantled, recycled or used as scrap metal. This means the VIN is destroyed and cannot be used ever again.
Irreparable (also called junk, fire, and flood damage) - this means the vehicle can be used for parts or scrap materials only.
Abandoned (also called found on road dead) - another label that is not typical for all states but determines the vehicle was found abandoned by its previous owner - information that may need to be disclosed in some regions.
Rebuilt (also called rebuilt salvage) - this is for a vehicle that had previously been branded as salvaged but has been rebuilt or repaired and then reinspected. The brand stays on the title permanently.
Once a VIN number has been associated to one of these brands, it won't be removed except in the case of the 'salvage' title, which can be replaced with the 'rebuilt' brand after the vehicle has been repaired. With so many different regulations in place, the system isn't perfect and can be exploited by shysters. One such scheme is 'title washing' where a vehicle that is branded as junk in one state is moved to another state where the regulations will brand the same vehicle as 'salvage' but repairable.