When you buy a car, the title is one of the most important documents. It proves you have ownership of the vehicle, and it’s issued by an official body, typically your state’s department of motor vehicles.
But can you buy a car without a title? Is it even legal to do so? Buying a car without a title is possible, but comes with its share of risks you should know before you take ownership of a car without one.
Can you buy a car without a title?
The simple answer is: Sometimes. It’s illegal in many states, and in states where it is legal, it’s not easy. Finding out who owns the car can be difficult, and there’s no telling if the car was stolen. If you buy a stolen car and the true owner surfaces, you could face considerable legal difficulties.
Even if you buy a car from a legal owner who legitimately lost the title, getting a new one issued by the DMV could take weeks or months. In the meantime, you’ll have a hard time insuring the car or even getting license plates, essentially rendering it inoperable, legally speaking.
How to buy a car without a title
While it’s not the easiest thing, purchasing a car without a title may be possible in states that allow it. Here are options if you’re set on buying a car with a missing title.
Get a replacement title
To get a replacement title, you need to contact your state’s DMV. They will tell you the process for getting the original owner to sign off on releasing their title.
You need to provide documents that show you are the legal owner of the car, such as a bill of sale, which can be supplied by any dealership where you purchase the vehicle. Keep in mind the person who sold you the car will need to pay any sales tax they owe. To avoid these and other complications, the seller should do this prior to the sale.
Track down the previous owner
For example, parents passing down or gifting their child their first vehicle is not unusual. The child functionally owns the vehicle, but the title remains in the parents' name. In this case, if the child wished to sell the vehicle, they would first have to contact their parents and have them sign the title over.
This can be murkier in less-familial situations where the previous owner’s identity is unknown. Still, getting a replacement title or tracking down the original is always preferable.
Create a bill of sale
A bill of sale for a car is important because it reveals who the car’s legal owner is. It’s not just proof you paid for the car—it can be useful in many situations.
For example, if something goes wrong with the original owner of the car, you have proof you legally own it. If someone steals your car, you have proof to show it’s yours. You should keep the bill of sale in a safe place.
Consider a surety bond title
If you want to buy a car without a title, you can use a surety bond title. This kind of title proves the vehicle is yours by showing the new owner’s name and the surety company’s name on it.
When you get your car legally transferred into your name, the surety bond title will be replaced by a title of your own. The surety company provides the agreement to take care of securing the proper registration if the legal owner doesn’t do it themselves.
A surety bond is often purchased through insurance companies, credit unions or car dealerships for about 2% of the value of the vehicle. You need to make sure you have this extra cash available when buying a car without a title.
Tips for buying a car without a title
Buying a car without a title can be a real hassle. If you live in a state where it’s legal to do so and want to proceed, these tips can help you better navigate the process.
Research, research, research
You need to do whatever it takes to avoid buying a stolen car from someone who does not have a title. The consequences can be serious for accidentally purchasing a stolen vehicle. You might go to jail or have to pay steep fines simply because you thought you were getting a good deal on a used car.
Do your due diligence by acquiring the vehicle’s VIN and bringing it to your local DMV so they can run a check on the car to ensure the car is in good standing. You can also bring the VIN to your local law enforcement and they can do a check on it to make sure it’s not stolen. You can also run your own VIN check.
If you buy a car without a title, make sure you don’t buy one with a lien on it. The risk of doing so could be dealing with a lender trying to reclaim the vehicle.
Again, you can find this out by acquiring the vehicle’s VIN and bringing it to your local DMV to check.
Because these transactions can be ripe with fraud and individuals looking to get rid of a stolen car, be extra careful when meeting the seller. Meet in a well-trafficked public area during the day and, if possible, bring someone with you. Let friends and family know what you are doing and keep them in the loop throughout the entire process.
If the person selling the car without a title insists on meeting in private, avoid the sale altogether and move on to the next potential purchase.
Ask lots of questions
The best way to catch someone who has something to hide is to ask a lot of questions. The owner of the vehicle should easily answer things like where they originally purchased the car, how long they’ve had it, why they want to get rid of it and, most importantly, why they don’t have the title.
Don’t be afraid to ask all the questions and really pay attention to not only the seller’s answers but their body language.
If the worst case scenario happens and the car is discovered as stolen after your purchase, you will be grateful you were thorough in your transaction. Ensure your bill of sale contains every possible bit of relevant information for both you and the seller. Take photos of everyone’s IDs, make sure you have a proper mailing address/place of residence for the seller and make a note of the time and location of the sale. You want to make sure all the information you collect would hold up in court if it ever came to that.
Trust your instincts
If the sale seems way too good to be true, it likely is. You need to trust your buyer’s instinct on this one, no matter how badly you want the vehicle in question.
Should you buy a car without a title?
Buying a car without a title can be difficult, but taking the necessary precautions can make the process less fraught. Do your research first and when possible, only deal with reputable sellers or someone you trust and know personally.