So you have stumbled across an old 4x4 in a farmer’s field or behind a crusty repair shop. Or, if you are like us, you are prowling Craigslist ads when you spot an automotive gem that just might be your new project rig. Then you read those two dreaded words that often scare off buyers, but also put a dent in the seller’s pricing: no title.
Often it is easiest to just steer clear of purchasing a vehicle where an owner can’t readily offer a clean title as part of the sale. Titles do get lost over many years, vehicles are sometimes bought and sold without titles, and there is always the possibility that the seller is trying to unload stolen property. Sometimes, however, getting a new title to secure your newfound project can be very well worth the effort.
The process of getting a new ownership title on a vehicle that currently has none varies from state to state. We can’t cover all the specifics here, so you will need to contact your local vehicle registration authority to get the details and documentation they require. What we can do is give you a good overview of the expected process and some tips to use along the way.
One good check is to run the serial number or vehicle identification number (VIN) through your state’s stolen vehicle database. While not a complete guarantee that the vehicle is not hot, it is an easy basic background check.
It is likely that if no current title is present at the sale, the seller or buyer can pursue a bonded title. This is a certificate of title granting you proof of ownership when a search finds no original title. To get such a title, you purchase a bond as insurance against some previous owner coming back to claim the vehicle. Some states may grant license plates and registration with just a bill of sale and VIN inspection form witnessed by a law enforcement officer. However, in many cases there is a more complicated process and you will need to pursue the bonded title through your state’s motor vehicle department.
To start, you may need to have the vehicle inspected and identification numbers verified. Then you will typically need to fill out a bonded title application or affidavit explaining how you received the vehicle and what supporting documentation you have. The motor vehicle department will do a history search on the vehicle looking for current or past owners. If owners are found, you may be required to contact each via certified letter or other means requesting ownership release to you. When dealing with older vehicles that have not been registered for years, records may drop off the vehicle database. In any case, hopefully no valid previous owners come up, as this simplifies the process.
Once the motor vehicle department has cleared the vehicle of previous owners, you may be required to purchase a bond for the vehicle with a vehicle value set by the department. You can purchase title bonds from a number of places, including some auto insurance companies. With the bond and all documents in hand you should be able to get a new bonded title issued in your name.
We have found that it pays to thoroughly read and understand the procedural steps required by your state to get a bonded title. In our experience, don’t assume the motor vehicle office fully understands the process details. We have encountered different offices asking for different documentation. Understand the process yourself, be vigilant with your paperwork, and you can walk off with a new title for your untitled vehicle with some bit of legwork on your part.
It certainly helps if the vehicle identification plates or VIN tags are all intact. You will need these numbers to get an inspection at the start of the process. In some states you may be assigned a new or salvage VIN by the motor vehicle department. Yes, some manufacturers did use simple screws to secure I.D. plates to bodies up into the 1970s. Some less experienced inspectors may actually not be familiar with this fact.
VIN codes came into use in the 1950s, but their format varied by manufacturer and was held to no standard. In 1981 a U.S. standard was established and to this day requires a unique 17-character, alphanumeric code for each street-legal vehicle.
With a little online research you can usually determine the location of all the body and frame identification numbers for a particular vehicle. You will often find matching numbers on the frame and body. Inspectors may also not understand that some older vehicles do not have a standardized VIN but rather brand-specific model and serial number plates.
When you’re purchasing a vehicle without a title, it’s best to get a detailed bill of sale from the seller. Some states offer their own form that can be used and has all the pertinent items defined on it. Whenever we purchase any vehicle we always check the title or bill of sale numbers against the actual numbers on the vehicle before leaving the sale site. This can save you headaches later should something not match.
You will almost always need a physical inspection of the vehicle to check the I.D. numbers. You can take the vehicle into the motor vehicle office, or some states offer third-party title and registration services that may have the ability to come to your site for an inspection when you can’t easily move the vehicle.
In our experience, we found that different motor vehicle department offices may interpret what is needed from you differently. We can also recommend that after waiting in line for your title work, you check and recheck all the numbers that have been transcribed onto new paperwork, looking for typos. On one vehicle, we found that our local motor vehicle division put down the incorrect VIN no less than three times.