• Buying Guides

Buying a Car Without a Title - What to Know

By Michael O'Connor | February 21, 2022

When buying a used car, there are all kinds of things you need to keep in mind to make sure you are getting a good deal and that the vehicle is in good shape. Taking the time to have all the paperwork in order and go through all the necessary checks will help protect you and ensure that you are getting a decent car. One of the most important things you need when buying a car is the title. However, sometimes the title won’t be available and this can cause some issues.

While it is possible to buy a car without the title, there are going to be some extra steps involved with the purchase. By understanding what goes into the process of purchasing a car with no title, you can make sure you are protected and that the car you are buying is in good shape.

What is a Car Title?

A vehicle title is a legal form that has all the relevant information about a particular car. It specifies who the owner is as well as any other identifying information like the vehicle identification number, the make, model, and year, and the owner’s name and address. This document exists so the owner can prove that a particular car is theirs and that they are responsible for it.

The title will also show the status of the vehicle and what kind of shape it is in. For the most part, if you are buying a car, you want it to have a clear title, meaning it is in good working condition and there are no significant issues. Other title statuses like flood or salvage mean that the car has been seriously damaged and may not be safe to be on the road.

What to Do Before Buying a Car Without a Title

While it is generally frowned upon to buy a car without a title and illegal to drive one on the road, there are reasons that you might still want to. For example, if you are trying to buy a rare or classic car, there is a good chance that the title will be missing. In these cases, purchasing it without the title in hand is relatively common. If you are set on buying a car that doesn’t come with a title, there are things you can do to obtain one and ensure that you will be the legal owner.

Check the Vehicle History:
The first thing you should do when considering buying a car without a title is to obtain a vehicle history report. Services like Carfax and Autocheck will allow you to get a full, up-to-date report on the vehicle using the VIN or, in some cases, the license plate number. These reports are put together using information from the DMV, local police, and mechanics. They will tell you if the car has been in any accidents or has had issues with vehicle registration in the past.

Have the Seller Get a Duplicate Title:
If the seller does not have the title because they misplaced the original, they will be able to get a replacement for you from the DMV. If the seller is above board, they will understand that it will be much easier for them to obtain a replacement title than it would be for you as the new buyer. If they are already the registered owner, it is much less expensive and time-consuming for them to get a duplicate.

Contact the Local DMV:
If for some reason the seller does not want to help you obtain a new title, you can always contact the DMV and have them help you get one. As long as you have the name of the seller and the VIN of the car, they will be able to walk you through the necessary steps to get a new title and transfer it to your name. There are, however, certain steps that you will have to go through and forms to fill out.

If you are trying to find out information on the vehicle before buying, the DMV can also help you with that. They can tell you information like whether or not the car has any liens on it. This is important to know since it will tell you whether you will need to continue making payments on the car to the lienholder after you have purchased it from the seller. If a car is still being paid off, it may or may not be worth the sale price.

Get a Surety Bond Title:
If you can not get a duplicate title because no previous owners have access to one or you can't get ahold of them, you can always get a vehicle surety bond. Surety bonds are not available in every state but they can allow you to register a vehicle in your name without having a title in hand. A surety bond is provided by a surety lender and will cover the cost in case anyone tries to claim they are the owner of the car after you have purchased it.

One of the big downsides of a surety bond is that it will be very expensive. Depending on your local DMV, a surety bond will have to be worth 1.5 to 2 times the value of the vehicle. By having this bond in place, you will be protected if a previous owner successfully challenges the bonded title and claims to be the rightful owner of a vehicle that you have purchased.

Check the National Insurance Crime Bureau

If you are unsure of the legal status of a car you are considering buying, it is a good idea to run a VIN check with the NICB. This will help you determine whether the car has been reported stolen or if it has been involved in any crimes or violations that you might be held responsible for if you buy the car. This will also tell you whether the car has been categorized as a flood or salvage title with an insurance company.

Get a Bill of Sale

No matter what, you should make sure that you get a bill of sale when purchasing any used vehicle. This document will be signed by both you and the seller and will lay out all the details of the sale as well as the contact information and phone numbers for all the parties involved. This will also help you register the car and get a title in your name if the seller can not get a duplicate for you at the time of the sale.

The bill of sale should have information such as the make, model, and year of the car as well as the odometer reading when the vehicle was handed over to you. This will help limit your liability and establish proof of ownership and a concrete time when the car was in your possession.

Why Would the Title Be Missing?

When you go to buy a used car, you should make sure that the seller has the title in hand and they can transfer it over to you. However, there are certain instances when the title may be missing. In these cases, there are steps you can take to acquire a new title, but it will take some time, effort, and money. There are several reasons why a title may be missing and they run the spectrum of legitimate reasons to dishonest ones. Knowing some of the most common causes of a missing title can help you notice any red flags and decide if buying the car is still a good idea.

The Title Has Been Misplaced:
Perhaps the most common reason that a seller does not have the title for a car is that it has been misplaced. Oftentimes, vehicle owners don’t understand how important the title is and will not keep track of it throughout their ownership. If this is the case, the seller should have no problem obtaining a duplicate of the lost title for you or helping to track down the owner before them to find a copy. If the seller is reluctant to do so, this could be a sign that there is something untoward going on or that they are not the legitimate titleholder.

The Car is Stolen:
The biggest concern you should have if a seller does not have the title is that the car might be stolen. Car owners tend not to keep the title in the glove box of the car, so someone who has stolen a vehicle will not have access to it. In these cases, they may be trying to sell the car far below the market value, which can give the impression that you are getting an excellent deal. Unfortunately, this just means that you are signing up for trouble down the line when you try to register the car in your name.

The Seller is Title Jumping:
One of the other common reasons that a seller might not have the title to a car is that they are doing something known as title jumping. Title jumping is when a seller wants to save money when flipping a car so they don’t register it in their name before selling it to another party. This saves them money on the sales taxes and registration fees but it is illegal in all states. If you are trying to buy a car from a title jumper, you won’t have access to all the information you need such as the condition of the car and the status of the title itself. You may also end up liable for things like tickets and accidents that happened before you made the purchase.

The Car Has Issues:
If a seller won’t give you a title for a used car, this could be an indicator that it has serious problems. When a car has been totaled or has sustained irreparable damage, this will be indicated on the title. Title statuses like “flood” or “salvage” mean that the work needed to get the vehicle up and running safely will cost more than buying a replacement. If this is the case, you should avoid buying it and look elsewhere for a vehicle.

Downsides of Buying a Car Without a Title

Extra Money:
Buying a car without a title will end up costing you more no matter what the circumstances are. Whether you need to get a surety bond or a duplicate title, you will end up spending more money on a used car than you would on a titled vehicle. In some cases, this may make buying the car less of a good deal than you originally thought it was.

There will be a risk involved with any used car purchase but it will be especially high if that car does not come with a title. If the car has been involved in any kind of crime without your knowledge, the police can pull you over and seize the car. It will not matter if you have a bill of sale or have paid for the car in full. This is why it is so important that you run a full vehicle history report on any used car you are thinking of buying.

Time Investment:
If you buy a car without a title, you will be spending a lot of time at the Department of Motor Vehicles no matter what the circumstances are. There is a lot of paperwork that needs to be filled out and things that need to be taken care of if the seller does not have the title in hand. If you aren’t willing to put in the time needed, you may be better off looking for a different used car that has a title.

It Is Usually Illegal:
One thing to keep in mind is that in most states it is illegal to buy or sell a car without a title. While many people get away with it, it can still be an issue if you run into problems down the line. The workaround is that it is generally legal to sell a car without a title if it is only being sold for parts.

For certain states, there are varying rules on car titles. For example, in Vermont, the state does not issue titles for vehicles over 15 years old. This is why you must check with the DMV before buying any car without a title. They will be able to let you know the legality of the transaction and what you need to do to comply with the local laws.

Final Thoughts

Buying a car without a title can be a hassle but if you are trying to purchase a rare or classic car, it may be your only choice. If you are only looking for a car to get you from point A to point B, you might be better off looking for a version of that same car that has everything in order and a title that is ready to be transferred to you. By understanding what it takes to buy a car without a title, you can make the right choice when the time comes.