Though it’s often possible to buy or sell a car without having the car’s title in hand, you’ll usually have to provide proof of ownership. The exact documents required vary by state, so you should check with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. You may be able to request a new title, transfer ownership of the title electronically, or obtain a temporary permit until the official title arrives.
Typically, you would go into the process of selling a car with all of your documents in place, including the car’s title. But what if the title is lost, damaged, or stolen? Or what if you still owe money on the car, so the bank holds the title? The good news is that you can usually still go through with the sale, as long as you can show proof of ownership.
In some cases, the car is too old to have a title, or the car has been abandoned and the original owner can’t be located. But you still may be able to register the car and complete a sale by obtaining the correct paperwork from your local DMV office. We’ll break down the different scenarios and explain car owners’ options for selling a car without a title.
What is a car title?
A car title, or Certificate of Title, is the legal document produced by a state’s Department of Motor Vehicles showing the registered owner of that vehicle. Car titles are sometimes called pink slips because some states would tint the title paper pink, although many don’t.
Do you need a title to sell a car?
Typically, yes you need a title to sell a car. However, this depends on your situation and the state you live in. In most states, it is illegal to sell a car without proof of ownership. You either need the title or a copy of the bill of sale as proof that you own the vehicle outright.
However, there are many situations in which you could be the owner of the car but not possess the title. Here are some common scenarios and how to handle them.
1. You had the title but it was lost, damaged, or stolen
In this case, you should apply for a duplicate title with the DMV that issued the original title. You will have to provide basic information about the car, including the vehicle identification number (VIN), and you may have to pay a replacement fee. You may also need to provide your driver’s license number or vehicle registration.
If you do happen to find the original title after you get a new one, you should destroy it or send it back to the DMV. Only the new title is valid.
2. There is a lien on the car so the lender has the title
Your best bet is to contact the lender before you go car shopping or list your car to find out how they handle the title transfer process. You might be best off working with a dealership, as they handle this type of sale every day. This means they should be able to facilitate the title transfer for you.
Some dealerships may even be able to do the transfer electronically, and in less time, if you live in one of the states that uses an Electronic Lien and Title (ELT) program. The chart below shows those states with ELT programs (colored in blue).
If this is a private sale, you will have to either pay off the loan beforehand and get the lender to release the title to you or have the buyer pay off your loan. In that case, your buyer will have to agree to pay off the loan, and, of course, you will need to owe less than the sale amount.
3. The car is too old to have a title
Believe it or not, some cars were made before states started issuing titles. So if the car is really old (like those Volkswagens so popular with the van life crowd or a classic restoration), it may be exempt from needing a title. Instead, you would need a bill of sale to prove ownership when you register the car.
4. The car is abandoned and the owner can’t be located
If you genuinely can’t find the title or the original owner of the car, you may be able to apply for an abandoned vehicle title. Your state will attempt to contact the owner using the VIN. But if no one comes forward, you can claim ownership.
What is a bonded title?
Another option when a title is lost or has incorrect information is to get a bonded title. Certain states require it when there is no ownership record. A bonded title contains a surety bond to protect the state in case another party claims to own the car. It’s kind of like insurance for false claims.
You can purchase these bonds online. The cost is based on the value of the car. When you apply for the title, you may also have to fill out a statement of facts to explain how you ended up as the car’s owner.
The Vermont loophole
If your car is at least 15 years old, you can take advantage of a unique option from the state of Vermont, sometimes called the “Vermont loophole.” You don’t need a title to register your car there. You just need a bill of sale and to pay the taxes and fees.
Vermont considers registration to be proof of ownership, so you will then have valid proof of ownership for any other state. Using this loophole is probably a last resort, but it might be a good option in the case of an older car that exchanged hands many times and whose previous owners lost the title long ago.
Can you sell your car to a junkyard without a title?
If you want to sell your car for scrap, you will still need the title. Salvage yards have to report the cars they destroy, so they need proof of ownership and will usually require a title. You might be able to get by with some other type of identification, but don’t count on it.
Don’t forget to notify your state of the sale
Your state will assess taxes and fees to the owner listed on the car title, so be sure to notify the DMV if you sell the car.
Can I sell a car without a title in CT?
If you’re selling a car in Connecticut to another resident and lost the title, you can complete the sale without a duplicate title. You just have to fill out some forms. This is also the case if the vehicle is more than 20 years old.
Can you sell a car without a title in Colorado?
You need a title to sell a car in Colorado. However, if you want to trade in your car at a dealership and your lender still has the title, the dealer may be able to facilitate a transfer.
Can you register a car with a bill of sale and no title?
If the car is too old to have a title or your state offers the option to get a temporary registration until the title arrives, you may be able to use a bill of sale. The other exception is Vermont, where you can register your car without a title.
Does a bill of sale have to be notarized?
Again, it depends on your state, so your best bet is to check with your DMV office. If you’re doing a private sale, it’s not a bad idea to have your bill of sale notarized, just in case.
- In some situations, you can buy or sell a car without the title in hand, but you usually need to show proof of ownership. In most states, it is illegal to sell a car without proof of ownership.
- If the title was lost, stolen, or damaged, you can request a duplicate title from the DMV of the state that issued the title. It can take several weeks to receive the new car title, and you may need to pay a fee.
- If there is a lien on the car and the lender holds the title, you will have to pay off the loan and have the title released to you before you can transfer ownership. If your state uses an ELT program, that could speed up the process.
- If the car is too old to have a title, it is considered exempt and you just need a bill of sale to prove ownership.
- If the previous owner of the car is unknown, you can apply for an abandoned vehicle title or a bonded title to prove ownership.
View Article Sources
- Registration — Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles
- Application for Duplicate Title — Minnesota Department of Public Safety
- How to Sell a Vehicle when Title is Missing — State of Connecticut | Department of Motor Vehicles
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