Buying a car: How to transfer title and register your vehicle

Transferring a title when you buy or sell a car and registering your new vehicle is an exercise in paperwork, with the process and requirements varying by state.

It almost certainly will require a trip to the local office of the state agency that handles titles and registrations (usually called the Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV). You should expect to pay fees ranging from $20 or so to possibly several hundred dollars, depending on the state.

If you buy a new car, the dealership and the lender will most likely handle the paperwork on the title. The lender will keep the title until you pay off the loan, and then mail it to you.

If you buy a used car from a private seller, however, you’ll need to have the seller sign the title over to you. You and the seller can handle the title transfer transaction on your own by signing the appropriate sections on the back of the title.

Once the title is transferred, you need to go down to the DMV to register the transfer. The documents and information you will need vary by state, but will usually include:

  • A bill of sale showing the purchase price
  • Proof the title has been signed over to you
  • The Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN (which should be on the bill of sale and title)
  • The current odometer reading

Your DMV will probably require you to fill out a form so they can record the title transfer and reissue the title in your name.

You’ll have to file out similar paperwork if you move to another state. If the lender, also known as the lien holder, still has the title, you’ll need to have the lender’s name and address handy when you go to the DMV. The DMV will probably contact the lien holder and request they register the title information with them.

Registering your new car

You can often register the car at the same time that you register the title transfer, and at the same place. Some counties also require you to buy a county registration for your car, with the requisite fees. In some states counties handle vehicle registrations rather than the DMV.

When you register the car, in addition to the information you need to register a title transfer, you’ll likely need the following documents:

  • Proof of liability insurance
  • Proof that you’ve paid sales tax on the car purchase
  • Certificates showing the car has passed safety and emissions inspections

Many states allow you to renew your registration by mail or over the Internet. You’ll have to either mail in your registration fees or provide a credit card number.

You often can download and print out the forms required for registering title transfers or registering the car online, allowing you to fill in everything before you get to the DMV or county office. Unfortunately, unless you’re renewing your registration, you’ll probably need to make the rest of the transaction in person.

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