When you decide to sell your car, it’s not unusual to discover that you no longer have the car title. It could have gotten misplaced, lost or destroyed in a move or thrown away by accident. Whatever the reason, your only recourse may be to look into selling a car without a title. Here’s expert advice for legally navigating a lost title.
Can you sell a car without a title?
The short answer is no, selling a car with no title is like saying you want to sell your house even though you’re renting. The certificate of title declares the legal ownership of the vehicle, and it’s required by law to get your car on the road. However, a missing title doesn’t mean you can’t ever sell a car, just that you will almost always need to perform some extra work to provide proof of ownership.
“If you don’t have your title to your vehicle, you should first go to your department of motor vehicles,” said Lauren Fix, a nationally recognized automotive expert at The Car Coach.
“It depends on the state, so follow your state laws there. In New York, you need a bill of sale, the title (and) proof of registration—and all the numbers have to match the VIN, or they’ll send you home. You can’t even get a license plate on it. If you’re in Pennsylvania and don’t have the title, you can go to (the) DMV and you just have to prove ownership, and you’re good.”
How to sell a car without a title
The simplest way of thinking about this is that a title is required paperwork to sell the car, so when the title goes missing, you need replacement paperwork. There are a few ways to do this.
Request a duplicate title
If you simply can’t find the title, you apply for a duplicate title. This usually just requires completing an application online and sending in a copy of your license with the application fee. States vary on the details. For example, if you complete an application for a lost title in Arizona, but are still paying on it, the DMV will mail the duplicate title to the lien holder of record, while Texas wants the lien holder to complete the application.
“The most important thing is to talk to the DMV in your state,” said Fix.
Get a copy of the title from your lender
If you owe money on the car, this one is pretty easy. The bank is technically the owner, and as the lien holder, it can provide a copy so you can sell the car. If the lien holder is a bank or credit union with local branches (versus online-only), they will likely just have you find a buyer, and bring them into a branch for the official transfer of ownership. Alternatively, you can pay the large payoff amount if you have the cash on hand, releasing the lien. If you still owe $20,000 on your Dodge Charger, that might not be an option, but you do have to satisfy the lien requirements.
“If there is a lien on that vehicle, you cannot sell it until that lien has been satisfied,” said Fix. “Now that could be a bank lien, but it could also be UCC filings, which is when that vehicle is being used as collateral. Someone else has partial ownership to it, whether it be a bank, a mechanic or another person. You do have to have the lien release with the title in order to sell that vehicle properly.”
Complete a title transfer
Sometimes transferring ownership without a title is fairly easy. Maybe your parents bought you a car, but the title is still in their name. Or perhaps a grandparent passed away and willed the vehicle to you. Fix says you’ll need proof the original owner doesn’t want the car anymore. “This could be a notarized letter from the current owners, or an executor of a will.”
If the title is in your parents’ names, all you have to do is get them to sign the title and head to your local DMV to change the vehicle registration to your name. Seems easy, but if both parents co-signed on the car, you’ll need both signatures here, too. Take the completed title and roughly $25 (the DMV loves their fees), and you should be all set to apply for a transfer of title.
Now, in the case where Grandpa died and left you his ‘49 Buick, you’ll need some additional paperwork. Bring the will or letters of administration, a copy of the death certificate, and the title. Complete the application, be ready to provide proof of insurance and pay the fee. Done. Thanks Grandpa.
Declare your title lost
If you bought a project car to fix, like a winter beater or potential future race car without ever seeing a title, and now want to sell the car, you’ll need to go through the process for a lost title. Fortunately, filing a lost title is the same process as a duplicate title request.
How much does a new title cost?
The cost to replace a title depends on where in the U.S. you live. The map below highlights the duplicate title fees in each state, based on their government fee schedule.
Can I sell a car without a title at all?
Let’s say you bought a large piece of property (good for you!), and you weren’t aware the previous owner collected dozens of rusting ’80s Chevrolet Cavaliers. These cars don’t have titles, and you understandably don’t want them, so you need a way to legally sell the cars without a title. In this situation, it can be done with the help of a bill of sale.
Create a bill of sale
“A bill of sale is not a title; it’s not as good as a title,” said Fix. “It just means ‘I’ve received money for something.’ You have to have both, the bill of sale and some kind of proof of ownership, to transfer ownership.” Fix said to again check with your state DMV, as some places require a bill of sale to be notarized or declare liens or list the current odometer reading.
Let’s sell some of those hypothetical old Cavaliers to an enthusiastic buyer. What does your bill of sale need?
“For a sale between two individuals, it’s just going to state who sold and bought it,” said Fix. “Describe the item, make and model, maybe a description of the vehicle with the VIN, have a date on it, and ’no warranty expressed or implied.’” State law might also require a bill of sale to state if the agreed payment amount was paid in full or a payment arrangement, damage disclosure, signatures of all parties including witnesses, and contact numbers. California also requires a recent emissions test.
Talk to a junkyard
You know who buys junk? Junkyards. They’re your local experts on buying and selling vehicles without a title.
“Yeah, they’ll buy ’em. They’ll know what to do,” said Fix, on salvage yards’ willingness to usually overlook the lack of a title. “They’ll sell them for scrap if you can prove you bought the property. Typically when you purchase property with a bunch of cars on it, it’s usually denoted somewhere in the closing documents that this property has been purchased from an estate.” Fix said that document is often enough proof when dealing with vehicles of no value.
“They’d like titles, but they’re not going to resell those cars. Now if it’s a bunch of new Lexuses sitting in the garage, they’re gonna have some questions and want titles.”
What about a car with a salvage title?
Let’s say you bought one of those sketchy “runs good, $400 cash” cars you found on Facebook Marketplace. Odds are the vehicle has a salvage title. This means the vehicle was involved in an accident, fire, flood or other serious issue that caused the repair cost to exceed the cash value. Instead of being repaired, it was sold with a salvage title, announcing that the vehicle should not be driven, and should be sent to a salvage yard.
Salvage title vehicles are safe only if the proper repairs are completed. Once fully repaired and inspected (plus a fee), a salvage title can become a rebuilt title, proving the vehicle is safe to drive. However, both statuses—salvage and rebuilt—negatively affect resale value, with salvage taking the severe hit.
“I do not recommend buying salvage title vehicles, unless you really know what you’re talking about,” said Fix. “I always tell people, make sure the title is clear before you make an offer. And have it checked by an ASE-certified technician before making your final offer." Running a VIN search on the vehicle is always a good idea, as it may bring up other brands on the title.
If you need to offload a salvage title car, it is still legal to sell, but you must disclose the salvage title status. Since these cars have such a massive hit to resale value, they often end up in the salvage yards anyway.
A no title car sale can be a pain in the trunk, but it’s one that can be overcome. The exact process depends on your state, and sometimes the age of the car, or how you came to possess it. Contact your DMV for expert advice specific to your state. Gather all the necessary paperwork to prove ownership before filing for a lost title. When selling without a title, be ready to draw up a bill of sale or complete a title transfer as needed. Do thorough research if buying a car without a title, and look for a complete paperwork trail.