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Buying a Car Without a Title

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A car title is a legal document that shows who owns a vehicle. It’s illegal in many states to sell a car without a title to prove ownership, and it can be very risky to buy a titleless car. If you buy a vehicle without a title, you run the risk of the title holder claiming ownership later. In any case, you will need the title to register it in your name or if you plan to take out a loan on the car.

A car may not have a title for a number of legitimate reasons, so here are some ways to buy a car without a title in the safest manner possible.

Can you buy a car without a title?

A title contains a lot of important information, including the owner’s name and address, the car’s make and model, the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN), the current mileage and notice of any liens. It is possible to buy a car when the seller doesn’t have a title in hand. However, if you want to register the car, put on a license plate, insure it and drive it on the street, you will need a title. It is usually the seller’s responsibility to obtain a title or provide a legally permitted substitute, such as a bill of sale for older cars.

How to buy a car without a title

Use caution if you find yourself thinking about buying a car without a title. There are legitimate reasons — for example, if it’s a classic car and the title has been lost, if it’s registered in another state or if there’s a lien on the car from the finance company — but some state DMVs, like Nevada, recommend you don’t buy a car from a private seller that doesn’t have a title.

Examine the car and talk to the seller

Make sure you understand the reason the car doesn’t have a title. It could be stolen or have a flood, fire or other salvage title. There could be a bank, mechanic’s or legal lien attached to the title that the seller would have to pay off to transfer the car. Some states only started issuing titles in the 1970s, so a car older than that may not have a title. Or, titles can simply be lost or damaged over the years.

When you inspect the car and meet the seller, watch for the following red flags:

The seller won’t obtain a title

Ask the seller to obtain a duplicate title through the state’s titling agency if the car is otherwise eligible for one. If they are reluctant to do so, that could be a big red flag.

The VINs are scratched, don’t match or are missing

Every vehicle manufactured after 1954 has a VIN somewhere on the vehicle, and since 1968, the VIN has been marked on the car where it is visible through the left windshield pillar and driver’s side door. Depending on the car, the VIN may be found in other places as well.

If the VIN numbers are unreadable or don’t match, the car is likely stolen. Walk away from the deal and report it to the police when you feel it’s safe to do so.

The seller pressures you 

If the seller is in a hurry to close the deal and wants you to pay with cash so there’s no paper trail, move on.

The seller is unwilling to answer questions

If the seller can’t answer questions about the car’s history or maintenance record, it’s a bad sign. You’ll want to know who drove it, how much it was driven and how it was serviced.

Check the vehicle history

Look into the vehicle’s history so you can start to understand the ownership situation, especially if you’re buying from a private party. Taking the car for an independent inspection may reveal hidden problems or give clues about an unsavory history. You should do this even if the car has a title, but it’s critical when you’re dealing with a vehicle without one.

Here are some tools to get the information you need:

  • VIN check: You can run a free VIN search with the National Insurance Crime Bureau to see whether a car has been reported as stolen.
  • Vehicle history report: A vehicle history report (VHR) can tell you a lot about a car, including whether it was in an accident, how many people have owned it and more. It can also help you spot an odometer that’s been rolled back to show fewer miles than the vehicle has actually traveled. The most popular VHR provider is Carfax. A Carfax report for a single vehicle costs $39.99.
  • National Motor Vehicle Title Information System: The NMVTIS is part of the U.S. Department of Justice and was launched to help protect consumers from fraud. Different VHR providers include data from NMVTIS. Some providers offer free reports, while others cost between $1.00 for a trial membership or up to $10.99 for a single car report. This is a good option when you suspect that the car has been owned in multiple states.
  • State records: If you know the car has only been owned in one state, you can find out how to do a records request in your state through the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

Ask the seller to get a replacement title

The easiest way to solve the problem is to ask the seller to get a replacement title. Each state has a procedure for ordering a replacement title, which is relatively easy and inexpensive. It will make the entire process of buying and registering the car so much easier to have a clear title in hand. Check with your state regulations for more details.

For example, Rhode Island doesn’t issue titles to vehicles from the model year 2000 or older. You will need a bill of sale instead. If you’re buying a car titled in another state and you don’t have the title, you may have to apply for a title from that state before you can transfer it.

Create a detailed bill of sale

A detailed bill of sale will help prove that ownership of the vehicle is changing hands properly. The bill of sale should include the same information you would find on the title, including the seller’s and buyer’s respective names and addresses, and it should identify the vehicle by make, model and VIN. Include the sale amount and the date of sale.

Some states require that the odometer reading be noted, and some require that the signatures should be notarized or witnessed by a DMV agent. A bill of sale that meets your state’s requirements can be used to get a title for the vehicle. You can learn more about how to draw up your own bill of sale, but many states also offer their forms online.

Trust your instincts

Buying a car without a title is risky. You could end up purchasing a stolen car or being conned by an odometer rollback scam. If you want to register the car and drive it, the seller will have to follow the steps required by your state to obtain a title. If a deal feels too good to be true, it probably is. Trust your gut and pass on what may seem like a steal. It could be!

How to get a title

To obtain a replacement title for one that has been lost or damaged, follow the procedure from your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

If the car wasn’t titled at all or wasn’t titled in that state, or if there’s some other problem, the state may issue a bonded title, also known as a surety bond, which requires additional proof of ownership of a car without a title and the vehicle’s value. To get a bonded title, the buyer purchases a bond equivalent to the car’s value for a specific term, and the car is issued a title with a bonded notice. If the title is not challenged by the end of the term, the bonded notice can be removed from the title.

Risks of buying a car without a title

It’s essentially impossible to conduct a legal car sale without a title or the equivalent, depending on the regulations in your state. Without a title, you won’t be able to legally register the vehicle, so the DMV will not issue a registration or license plates. You also won’t be able to get a traditional auto loan without a title.

How to buy a car without a title: FAQ

Buying a car without a title is generally too risky to be worth it. Ask the seller to obtain a replacement title before finalizing the purchase, and draw up a thorough bill of sale.

No, you can’t register a car without a title that meets your state’s requirements. For example, a car that’s been declared a total loss in an accident will have a salvage title and can’t be registered until it has been repaired and the salvage brand removed or changed to salvage rebuilt.

Contact the agency in your state that handles car titles, often the DMV, and follow their procedures. There are usually fees associated with applying for a title, and it may take a few weeks to receive the copy.

 

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