July 22

Guide to Buying a Car Without a Title

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You arrive for the car sale, either at a government auction or a private seller. Even better, you spot a ride that matches exactly what you want. The only problem is your desired vehicle has come without something crucial – a title. Should you go through with the purchase or walk away? We have the solution in this guide to buying a car without a title.

Note – this guide will apply mostly to acquiring titleless cars from government auctions. However, the rules still largely apply when purchasing from private sellers too. If you are purchasing cars for parts, scrap, or recycling metal, then  this guide won’t be necessary. A car title is only essential for driving.

When a vehicle is on sale without a title, this does not mean that the vehicle isn’t as the seller claims, in bad condition, or that the seller is otherwise sketchy. There are various reasons vehicles are without titles at both government auctions and private sellers. These reasons differ and overlap.

Here are potential reasons for titleless cars at government auctions:

  • Title was lost or damaged and never replaced.
  • The vehicle’s title may have been stolen.
  • The vehicle was seized or abandoned.
  • Vehicle was purchased or acquired from previous seller without a title (and new owner never went through the process of finding the paperwork).

Here are potential reasons for titleless cars at private sellers:

  • Title was lost or damaged and never replaced.
  • The vehicle’s title may have been stolen.
  • The seller is participating in “title jumping” (purposefully selling cars without a title to avoid sales tax).

These are all legitimate reasons, however, many people will try to profit from vehicles they aren’t legally allowed to sell (either because the vehicle was stolen or written off as unrepairable). They attempt to sell the vehicle without a title because the lack thereof makes determining vehicle history and ownership more difficult. 

Again, even when a vehicle is being sold without a title, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily walk away from the sale. Sometimes auctions sell vehicles that have been seized by police or were abandoned by the owner. In these cases, sometimes recovering the title before the vehicle goes to auction just isn’t feasible. Try checking the auction listing for the status of the title, and if you’re still unclear, ask the seller. 

Now, on to our guide to buying a car without a title!

Inspect and research your potential new car

The first step when considering a vehicle without a title is to make sure the vehicle is worth the hassle. Do this before researching the vehicle’s history. You don’t want to let a missing title distract you from other possible inconveniences. Are the engine, brakes and cabin power in working order? With any vehicle, you will still need to perform a mechanical and maybe electrical inspection. Feel free to ask about taking the car for a test drive.

When you’re expecting the vehicle, check the vehicle identification number (VIN). The VIN is a 17-digit number that identifies the make and model of the vehicle as well as the location and year the vehicle was manufactured. It is located below the windshield on the driver’s side of the vehicle, on a sticker or metal plate located on the door jamb. You can also find it under the hood on the wall between the engine and the passenger seat. Write the VIN down or take a picture of it. 

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Checking both locations is important because you want to ensure the VIN is the same. If one VIN is different, it could be evidence that the vehicle’s identity is deliberately being misrepresented. Or it could be evidence that the vehicle had its driver side door replaced and the VIN sticker was never put back.

While at the auction or private seller, run the vehicle’s VIN through the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). This free service allows people to determine whether a vehicle has been stolen or listed as salvage by an insurance agency. A vehicle that is listed as salvage is one that has been deemed too expensive to repair. These vehicles can’t be registered, so you could never legally get license plates or insurance for it.

Also use the vehicle’s VIN to run a more extensive vehicle information report through a company. Examples include CARFAX and AutoCheck. Doing so will provide the following information:

  • Vehicle title check
  • Number of vehicle owners 
  • The states in which the vehicle was registered
  • Information regarding liens on the vehicle
  • Accident history 
  • Maintenance on the vehicle
  • Whether the vehicle was salvaged

If you purchase the vehicle, there are more steps to getting a title. Not having one leaves you vulnerable to legal claims on the vehicle should someone with the title turn up and claim the vehicle as their own. 

How to get a title for a car with a bill of sale

If you don’t have the title to your vehicle, but the title does exist somewhere,whoever is in possession of the title has a legal claim to the vehicle. This is true even though you paid money for it. 

In many states, it is illegal to sell or buy a vehicle without a title or drive a vehicle without a title. You also can’t purchase insurance for it. 

An alternative is to complete a bill of sale. This demonstrates that you acquired the vehicle in a legal manner, and establishes your claim over the vehicle. The bill of sale should include the sale’s details: VIN, sale price, odometer reading, date of purchase, and name of seller. While paying for the vehicle, use a form of payment that can be easily tracked. 

When purchasing a titleless vehicle at a government auction, the municipality will complete a bill of sale prior to releasing the vehicle. In this case, the first step is taken care of for you. 

In some states, you can register a vehicle without a title. If this is possible, you should do so immediately. In these cases, the state vehicle agency will issue a non-transferable registration. This registers the vehicle within that state and allows the registrant to use the vehicle for personal use. The only catch is that a vehicle with this status can’t be sold.

Most states won’t allow you to register a vehicle without a title. Thus, in those scenarios (and even in states where you can), you should do the work to get the title. 

Acquire a replacement title

When purchasing a vehicle at an auction, keep in mind that the auction company didn’t sell you the vehicle. They never owned the vehicle and are only responsible for the sale of it. 

If you bought a car from a government auction, the municipality selling the vehicle will provide you as much information as they have about the vehicle. Ask them for documentation if the vehicle was seized or abandoned. You can use this to support your request for a new title. If they lost the original title and have a record of the number, getting a replacement will be easier than locating the original.

Whatever the scenario, make sure you have the bill of sale. The VIN, bill of sale, and the reason for no title are the most commonly asked for items when getting a new title.

Check your local DMV for the documents, forms, and fees required for you to get a replacement title.

Get a surety bond

The final step in securing vehicle ownership without a title is to get a surety bond. These can be acquired from a licensed surety bond company. 

A surety bond allows for a person to register a vehicle without a title and claim ownership of the vehicle for a fee. The bond price varies from state to state and are based on the worth of the vehicle, your credit score, and other financial histories.

To claim a surety bond, the vehicle owner must submit proof of purchase, proof of residency, and proof the vehicle is not salvaged. The bond company will also need a vehicle valuation to determine the amount of the bond. 

Surety bond titles are not available in all states and only vehicles that have no liens on them, and aren’t stolen or salvaged, are eligible for a surety bond.

The surety bond lasts between three to five years. During this time, other individuals can challenge your ownership of the vehicle which could cause litigation. 

In this case, the lender promises to cover any losses in the event of someone else filing a claim of ownership against your vehicle. However, they will pay with your money, so expenses can add up quickly if someone challenges your ownership. For this reason, only get a bond for a vehicle for which you are confident you will not receive any challenges. 

After the bond period, the bonded title indication can be removed, and then the vehicle owner receives a regular title for the vehicle, provided no issues regarding the ownership of the vehicle occurred during the bond period. 

In Conclusion

A car without a title may be a good investment. Of course there are considerations that must be made like the price, or potential vehicle repairs. Ask yourself if the desired vehicle is worth the time and effort to replace the title. If so, then you have your essential guide and know exactly what needs to be done.


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