Auto Body Blog

What is Total Loss in Relation to Car Damage?

There are few things more disheartening than feeling your car crunch from an accident, but hearing “total loss” from insurance after is one of them. 

But what exactly does it mean when a car is deemed a total loss? And, more importantly, what makes a car a total loss in the first place? 

There are a myriad of emotions and questions that arise when faced with such a situation, from navigating the aftermath of an accident to simply seeking to understand the intricacies of vehicle valuation.

Our drive is to demystify the concept of car total loss, providing you with valuable insights and a clear understanding of what leads to such a determination. 

Understanding the Basics

Navigating automotive repairs and insurance claims is nobody’s favorite. When terms like "car total loss" are tossed out, it becomes an even more frustrating realm.

 So, what makes a car a total loss?

A car is deemed a total loss when the cost of repairs surpasses its actual cash value (ACV) less the salvage value. In Utah, a total loss formula (TLF) is used to determine this.  A TLF is a comparison of your vehicle’s ACV to the total of your repair costs and the car’s salvage value.  The salvage value is calculated by the insurance company and can vary.

Think of it this way: if it's more expensive to mend the car than its current market worth, it's typically considered a total loss. With meticulous assessments, insurance companies play a pivotal role in determining the ACV. They evaluate the damage, estimate repair costs, and juxtapose these figures with the vehicle's ACV, influenced by factors like the car's age, mileage, and overall condition.

State regulations also weigh in, setting specific thresholds or percentages that define when a car is deemed a total loss. Certain states will identify a car as a total loss if the cost of repair is 75% or more of the ACV. These regulations standardize the approach but vary from state to state.

Factors Leading to a Car Being Deemed a Total Loss

Factors Leading to a Car Being Deemed a Total Loss

When you hear "car total loss," it's natural to envision catastrophic damages — a vehicle mangled beyond recognition. However, the factors that lead to deeming a car total loss are more nuanced than merely visible issues. 

The primary determinant is the financial equation. When the estimated cost to restore a vehicle overshadows its ACV, it indicates a car total loss scenario. This ACV isn't a static figure; it's influenced by the condition prior to the accident and market trends. 

If your vintage sedan or well-maintained SUV encounters an unfortunate event, the repair costs might be steep, but if they approach or exceed the car's ACV, the scales tip toward the car deemed a total loss.

While less tangible, the safety and structural integrity of a vehicle post-repair will influence the total loss decision. If damages compromise the vehicle's core safety features, even if repairable, it might still be considered a total loss due to potential safety risks.

Why Owners Choose to Repair A Total Loss Vehicle

Being told you have a "car total loss" may feel like the end of a journey with a trusted companion. Despite the financial metrics and insurance assessments, many choose to breathe new life into their total loss vehicles. 

But what drives this decision?

At the heart of many choices lies deep-seated sentimental value. Vehicles often become more than mere machines. Our cars transform into repositories of memories, milestones, and moments. Whether it's the car you drove your child home from the hospital in or the vehicle that accompanied you on cross-country adventures, the emotional bond sometimes outweighs logical financial considerations.

For others, it's a firm belief in the repairability of their vehicle. Older cars, even if deemed a total loss, might still be "fixable" in the eyes of their owners. With trusted mechanics and a clear understanding of the damages, some owners feel confident in restoring their cars to their former glory. This sentiment is particularly strong among enthusiasts of classic and vintage cars. 

Popular models like the 1967–1969 Chevy Camaro, the iconic Ford Mustang from the 1964–1968 era, and the Plymouth Barracuda from 1970–1974 are often sought after for restoration. Limited models on the market, such as the old Ford Broncos, the Thunderbird, and the Dodge Charger, hold a special place in the hearts of car enthusiasts. The allure of bringing these timeless beauties back to life, combined with their rarity, makes them prime candidates for restoration after a total loss claim.

Finances also play a significant role. The insurance payout may not match the vehicle's perceived worth, especially when weighing replacement expenses. For some owners, fixing their car — even if deemed a total loss — is more cost-effective than purchasing another vehicle.

The prospect of a salvage title also deters some from parting ways with their vehicle. A salvage title, while indicative of past damages, may significantly diminish a car's resale value. For those unconcerned about selling, repairing seems a practical choice.

The Aftermath of a Car Deemed Total Loss

The moment a vehicle is declared a "car total loss" marks a significant turning point for its owner. It's a juncture filled with decisions, paperwork, and a whirlwind of emotions. 

But what exactly happens in the aftermath?

First, there's insurance payouts. Once a car is deemed a total loss, insurance companies step in to offer a settlement. This amount is typically based on the vehicle's ACV before the accident or damage. While this payout aims to compensate for the loss, it might not always align with the owner's perceived value of the vehicle or the replacement costs.

The Aftermath of a Car Deemed Total Loss

Then there is the salvage title. Vehicles declared a total loss often receive this designation, signaling to potential future buyers the car's history of significant damage. While a salvage title impacts resale value, it's not necessarily the end of the road for the vehicle. Some owners choose to repair and continue using their salvaged vehicles, while others might sell them to specialized buyers or salvage yards.

If an owner disagrees with the insurance company's assessment, there are other avenues to explore. Owners can seek second opinions or alternative repair estimates. Challenging what makes a car a total loss might require additional documentation, expert evaluations, and sometimes negotiations, but it may help ensure they receive a fair assessment.

Practical Tips for Vehicle Owners

With the proper guidance and a proactive approach, car owners can steer their way through this challenging terrain with confidence. 

Here are some practical tips:

  • Educate Yourself on the Basics: Knowledge is a powerful ally. Familiarize yourself with the criteria that determine what makes a car a total loss. Understand the interplay between repair costs, your vehicle's actual cash value, and state-specific regulations. This foundational knowledge will serve as your compass, guiding your decisions and interactions with insurance adjusters.
  • Do your own research: Do your own research as to your vehicle's ACV.  Check sites like, KSL Classifieds, etc, and get 3-5 comparables to arm yourself with information.
  • Review Your Insurance Policy: Review the terms and conditions of your insurance policy. Know what's covered, the extent of your coverage, and any applicable deductibles. Being well-versed in your policy's specifics will help streamline the claims process and ensure you're adequately compensated.
  • Document Everything: Maintain a thorough record from photographs of the damage to repair estimates and communications with the insurance company. Documentation is invaluable, especially if you choose to challenge your car deemed a total loss.
  • Understand the Implications of a Salvage Title: If you opt to retain and repair your vehicle after the total loss declaration, be aware that it will likely carry a salvage title. This title will impact the vehicle's resale value and might have insurance implications. Research your state's regulations on salvaged vehicles, especially if you plan to put the car back on the road.
  • Consult with Professionals: Whether it's seeking advice from a trusted mechanic, consulting with an attorney, or engaging with a consumer advocacy group, don't shy away from seeking expert guidance. Professionals offer insights, clarify doubts, and assist in navigating the intricacies of a car total loss scenario.

Being proactive and informed about car damage can make all the difference. As you grapple with the implications of a car deemed a total loss, using the right resources, support, and a dash of determination will help you navigate with clarity and confidence.

Get Your Car Damaged Assessed and Repaired with Schneider Auto Body & Paint

Navigating the aftermath of your car being deemed a total loss is never fun. At Schneider Auto Body & Paint, we've been a trusted partner to the Salt Lake community since 1984, offering expertise, guidance, and top-quality service. We understand the emotional and financial stress you go through when your car is damaged or not running properly. 

If you're grappling with the aftermath of an accident, wanting a second opinion on a car total loss declaration, or simply seeking clarity on potential repairs, let our certified team provide you with a comprehensive estimate, equipping you with the information you need to make informed decisions. Request an estimate today and experience the Schneider Auto Body difference.