• Buying Guides

Buying a Car Without a Title - What to Know

By Shawn Furman | August 4, 2023

Can You Buy a Car Without a Title?

shutterstock 1855383037

Technically, you can buy a car without a title in the sense that you can find a car for sale without a title, pay a private seller for it, and drive away.

In most cases, however, a vehicle without a title cannot be registered, insured, and legally driven. Additionally, the lack of a vehicle title would severely impair your ability to resell it in the future, even if you were never to drive it.

The most common ways to buy a vehicle without an official title include obtaining a bill of sale or a bonded title. A bill of sale is more common in place of a title when buying older vehicles that never officially had a title in the first place. New York, for example, does not title vehicles from 1972 and older, while Rhode Island has the same policy for the 2000 model year and older.

Any bill of sale should reflect the same information that a normal car title would, including the previous owner’s name and address, your name and address, the vehicle identification number, its make, its model, the date of the sale, and the odometer reading at the time of the sale. Some states, including Louisiana, Maryland, and Nebraska even require a notarized bill of sale.

Even though not all states require this, good practice is to have a notary or other witness from your local DMV serve as a form of official authorization of the bill of sale if it must be used as a stand-in for a vehicle title.

The second way you can officially transfer ownership of a vehicle to your name without a title is through a bonded title. To do this, the car buyer can work with their insurance company to purchase a surety bond that is equal to the value of the vehicle. The car buyer will also have to provide additional proof of ownership of the car in order to officially obtain the bonded title.

Unlike other kinds of car titles, bonded titles have lifespans that usually last between three and five years. If there is no ownership dispute by the time a bonded title’s lifespan has ended, the title can be cleared of its bonded title status.

Even though most states accept bonded titles, there are several that do not including Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia. An alternative to bonded titles in these states is a court-ordered title.

When it comes to car buying, many people prefer getting their next new car from a dealership. Dealerships often handle much of the paperwork required by the DMV—they usually take care of any title transfer work that needs to be completed, they can send any necessary information to your insurance company, and they can even find lenders for you if you need to take out a car loan.

If you choose to forgo buying your next vehicle at a dealership to potentially get a better price from a private seller, though, the hassle that the dealership would normally remove from your car-buying experience now falls squarely on you. This can be especially true if you are looking to buy a titleless vehicle. There are ways to get around the purchase of a vehicle without a car title, but it can add even more hassle to the process.

It is likely that you will need to fix this problem by getting a new car title or even having the previous owners get one before you buy. Each state has its own laws concerning car titles, transferring titles, and what can and cannot be done with a vehicle that has a missing title.

How to Buy A Car Without A Title:

shutterstock 2255151649

If you have your eyes set on buying a vehicle that you find out has a missing title, there are several steps you can take to mitigate the potential risks to yourself and obtain a new title after the purchase of the vehicle.

Do Your Research:

The most important first step in any new vehicle purchase is research. It is one thing to research the make and model of a vehicle you want, but if you know that the vehicle you want lacks a title, there is more digging you should do to make sure you know what you are getting.

Check the car’s history through as many sources as possible. Vehicle history websites like AutoCheck and Carfax have vehicle history reports that you can purchase. They will usually be able to tell you if the car in question has ever been declared a total loss, if the title has been branded in any way, or if the vehicle has been in any accidents that have been reported to the owner’s car insurance company.

You can perform a VIN check through the National Insurance Crime Bureau to see if the car has been reported as stolen. You can also use the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System to find out if any past events have affected the title negatively.

You can even submit a request for information from the Department of Motor Vehicles. State records obtained through the DMV will often show title events that the seller may be hiding from you.

The last part of your research should include what your state requires for titling, what they need to have a new title issued if one is not available, and what can replace a title should one not be able to be obtained at all.

Perform an Inspection:

Even with vehicles that have a clean title and a good history, it is good general practice to have the vehicle inspected before you purchase it. Performing an inspection before purchasing a vehicle without a title becomes even more important to protect yourself from a potential scam.

You can always enlist the services of a trusted mechanic to do the inspection for you. There will usually be a fee involved, but if you are not well-versed in car mechanics or you are unfamiliar with the make and model being sold, a mechanic can be a huge help.

If you choose to do the inspection yourself, make sure to look for things like signs of hidden damage, signs of water damage, whether or not the VIN number has been scratched off, whether or not the vehicle runs well, and whether or not it looks like the parts are OEM or aftermarket replacements.

All of these things could clue you into a potential issue that ultimately relates back to why the vehicle’s title may be missing. Even the price of the car can give you hints as to what might be going on. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is, and you should proceed with caution.

Ask For a Replacement Title:

One of the simplest steps you can take when looking to buy a car that does not have a title is to ask the current owners if they can replace it. If the seller is honest and truly wants to sell their vehicle to you, they will likely not have too difficult of a time obtaining a replacement or duplicate title for their vehicle.

An owner who has something to hide will likely not want to disclose the information they know, and therefore, will likely not be as keen to try and get a replacement title. If you find a titleless car to buy, but you do not know who the previous owner is, you can try running a VIN check or license plate check through the DMV. Their records may not render anything helpful, but it is always worth a look.

If you do find the previous owner, they may or may not be helpful. If they unknowingly sold their vehicle to a title jumper, they may not even be aware of the titling issue if there were never any issues with the vehicle after it was sold. Of course, if they themselves are unwilling to transfer or disclose the title, you may have to take the extra steps necessary to prove that you are the new owner.

Run Away If a Situation Looks Fishy:

If something does not feel right, look right, or line up, do not be afraid to pass on the vehicle, no matter how good of a price a seller is requesting. There are tons of vehicle options on the market that other private sellers and dealerships have to offer. It is likely that you can find something similar elsewhere with a title.

Not everybody likes doing business through a car dealership. Many dealerships have higher pricing than private sellers, and dealership sales associates often earn a bad reputation for how they conduct business. Nevertheless, purchasing a vehicle through a reputable dealer can save you time by helping you obtain license plates, fill out paperwork, find financing, and route the title correctly to the new owner.

Be Prepared to Fix the Title Issue Yourself:

After you have done your homework, you understand that a vehicle you want does not have a title, and you do not want to work through a dealership for your next car purchase, you should be prepared to obtain a new title or an alternative legal document to legally make the vehicle your own after the purchase.

If the previous owner of the vehicle is able to obtain a replacement title, it will make things easier for you when you visit your local DMV to officially transfer the title into your name. If, however, the car remains titleless, you will need to create a bill of sale, gather the necessary legal documents, and gather the necessary personal documents to get a surety bond from your insurance company so that you can receive a bonded title from your state’s DMV.

A surety bond and bonded title are issued in place of a title and act as a substitution for a missing title to prove legal ownership of the vehicle. A bonded title typically has a lifespan of three to five years. If that time elapses without any ownership disputes, it will be cleared of its bonded title status.

If you live in a state that does not accept bonded titles, you should prepare to file for a court-ordered title to prove that you are the new owner of the titleless vehicle. You will need to have the vehicle inspected, pay any necessary fees that go along with that, make a case to a judge as to why and how you own the vehicle in question, and take the court order to the DMV to finalize legal ownership if the court grants you the order.

Why Would a Car Lack a Title?

There are several reasons that a vehicle may lack a title. Some of them are completely reasonable and innocent while many more represent potential scams and shady practices.

Lost Title:
One of the legitimate reasons that someone may not have a title for their vehicle is that the title has been lost. At a time in which nearly everything has been digitized, keeping a paper document in the same place for so long can be challenging. Many DMVs even keep digital copies of vehicle titles in case a paper copy is missing.

Paper also gets easily damaged and wears out over time. Even paper that is only five or ten years old becomes more easily ripped than fresh paper. Most private sellers that know that their car title is damaged, lost, or destroyed should be more than happy to obtain a new one via their local DMV before conducting an official sale.

Old Vehicle:
Another legitimate reason that a vehicle may not have a title is the age of the vehicle. We have seen that New York does not issue titles to vehicles from 1972 and older while Rhode Island does not issue titles for vehicles from the 2000 model year and back. Each state has its own standards when it comes to titling, and it may be that a classic vehicle may not be able to be titled again.

Hidden Issues:
Sadly, it is just as common to see a titleless vehicle for nefarious reasons as it is for legitimate reasons. One of the reasons a vehicle may lack a title is simply because the seller does not want to disclose the details that the current title has to the next buyer. This can occur if a vehicle has been given a flood or salvage title. Even a rebuilt title may bring down the value of the car being sold, not allowing the seller to get the price he or she wants.

If a private seller is ever hesitant to obtain, show, or provide a prospective buyer with a title, it should be a red flag that there is a problem with the vehicle or its title.

Stolen Car:
This one is pretty self-explanatory. A stolen vehicle will not have a title consistent with the person who stole it. Even if the thief manages to get their hands on the vehicle title, it is unlikely that the title will be in the thief’s name.

Current Lien:
If a vehicle has a lien, the title will reflect the lender’s information rather than the person who drives the car on a daily basis. A vehicle is not truly the buyer’s until a car loan is paid in full. It is nowhere near impossible to purchase a vehicle from a private party if a lien does exist, but it adds one more wrinkle to the car-buying process and can turn out to be an extra bit of hassle if the buyer and seller are unfamiliar with their own state’s car buying procedures.

Unfortunately, scammers are everywhere. Even when a vehicle title is fully legitimate and you perform a thorough check on a car’s history, it is always a good idea to proceed with a private party purchase with extreme caution. Buying a car from a recognized, reputable dealership is much easier and assuring, but even less reputable dealerships can pull a fast one every now and then.

One of the most common scams that a private car seller can pull off is called title jumping. Title jumping is when a buyer never retitles a vehicle that they buy in their own name, selling it to the next buyer who comes along – you.

This causes any type of liability for the vehicle and the title to ultimately fall back on the original owner. Anytime that anybody purchases a vehicle, they are required by their state to title and register the vehicle within their state of residence. Usually, a 30 to 90-day grace period is given to a buyer to complete this process.

A scammer that intentionally practices title jumping may be looking to make a quick profit on a vehicle without paying any additional taxes or registration fees. Sometimes, a buyer just wants to avoid the fees while using the car for their transportation needs.

In some cases, a buyer is simply ignorant or unfamiliar with the process of titling their new car in their name and an important step of the process is incorrect or missed. Though someone like this may not be trying to scam anybody, they could ultimately cost themselves and you both money and time trying to fix a vehicle’s title.

Reasons to Walk Away From a Titleless Vehicle

If you know the titling process well, or if you are a car dealer that has dealt with buying vehicles in the past, it may be worth it to you to buy a car without a title. For the majority of other buyers, neither of those things will be the case, and there are many more reasons why you may just want to pass.

You Will Cost Yourself Time and Money:

We have outlined some of the hassles that car buyers go through, even when they make a private party purchase on a car with a title. Trying to retitle a car without a title according to your state’s laws can be hard work, especially in states that do not accept bonded titles. Additional fees and steps also get added to the process. These fees add up, costing you extra money you would not even spend at a dealership.

Time may play an even larger role than money when it comes to replacing a missing title. Depending on the state in which you live, the jurisdiction in which you reside, or even the time of year it is, you could be waiting for the necessary documents, approvals, and signatures for weeks or months just to prove that you are the new owner of a vehicle.

You May Get Yourself in Trouble:

As long as you have all of the necessary documentation in order that goes along with buying a car without a title, you should have no issue if an ownership dispute or other legal hurdle gets in the way. If, however, you are unfamiliar with the retitling process, if you miss a step somewhere, or even if an ownership challenge comes from a previous owner, you may have to take even more steps to retitle your new car and fight some additional legal battles on the way.

What Is a Car Title Anyway?

A car title is a legal document that serves as proof that the title holder is the owner of a vehicle. A vehicle title should always follow the current owner of a vehicle. In the case that a car buyer takes out a car loan on a vehicle of his or her choice, the lender will be the one who has possession of the vehicle title until that loan is paid back in full.

When a loan is paid off or when a new or used car is paid for in full at a dealership, a title transfer will be completed, reassigning the title to the current registered owner of that vehicle. If a vehicle is bought via a private seller, both the previous owner and pending owner of the vehicle will have to work through their state’s DMV in order to officially transfer ownership of the vehicle via a title transfer.

If you are looking to buy a new or used car and you find that the car has a missing title, you should proceed with caution. The title may actually be missing if it has been lost or destroyed, but the current owner of the vehicle may also be trying to hide the title because of details within it that would disclose undesirable or intentionally hidden information.

There Are Other Options

The simplest reason why it might be best to walk away from buying a car without a title is that there are so many other options on the market. There are plenty of private sellers who are not looking to scam potential buyers, there are reputable dealerships at which you can get a great deal on a car without the hassle of extra paperwork, and there are plenty of similar vehicles out there that will fit your needs.