This is How to Buy a Car Without a Title

You're browsing Craigslist one afternoon when the perfect car comes up for sale. Everything looks great until you realize that the owner doesn't have a title for it. In that moment, you need to know how to buy a car without a title and be confident that doing so won’t cause big problems or land you with a stolen car.

This article explains everything you need to know about how to buy a car without a title. Buying a car without a title is different from the usual car-buying process. Added security steps protect you against scammers and schemes while ensuring that you can legally title that car in your name without fear of breaking any laws. This article doesn’t cover bonded titles (surety bonds) or paid means of replacing a lost title, like the services we offer at Title Gods, or the state-specific ways to replace a lost title.

Check out our title recovery services that will save you time, effort, and stress when replacing a lost car title.

How to Buy a Car Without a Title

When buying a car without a title, follow these steps:

  1. Run the VIN number to make sure it isn’t stolen

  2. Try to determine what happened to the title

  3. Meet in a public place and bring a friend

  4. Get a detailed bill of sale from the seller

Before we discuss how to buy a car without a title, it’s important to know that unless you’re an experienced car buyer this usually isn’t a good idea. This guide will prepare you, but it’s one of the most common scenarios for a scammer to try and take advantage of someone.

Play it Safe

First thing’s first: make sure the car isn’t stolen. Run the VIN number through our $10 VIN Check. What’s $10 if it means you won’t accidentally get involved in a felony? Obtain the VIN by asking the seller to provide it before the sale. If they say no, that’s usually a sign something bad is happening.

When the sale happens, be sure to bring a friend or trusted acquaintance and meet the seller in a public place. We've all heard stories about the dangers of buying things on classifieds sites, and regardless of how uncommon those events are they can still happen to you. Scammers may look completely approachable on the surface – you might even have a great conversation with them – but their ulterior motives are sinister. Speaking of that…

Find Out Why the Title is Missing

Your next move will be to ask the seller why the title is missing. A smart buyer will do this before the meet-up. Unfortunately, without a crystal ball handy you won’t know if the seller is telling the truth or blowing smoke where it doesn’t belong.

You need to ask plenty of questions to form an understanding of where the title went. You will use these details when filling out your bill of sale. It’s time to put on your detective hat and monocle; just don’t go giving a 90-year-old lady the fifth degree in a Taco Bell parking lot because “that’s what Dr. Who would do.”

Once you have your answers, turn right around and…

Forget What the Seller Told You

Focus on the only thing that matters: the facts. Ask yourself whether the story makes sense, especially if the person selling the car without a title isn’t the person who last had it. If the facts at your disposal can’t prove in a court of law that this vehicle legally belongs to you, don’t buy it.

If the seller isn’t the last person who had the title, that person is committing a criminal offense called title jumping. It’s still possible for you to replace the title in this instance, but buying the car skirts the line of legality.

When buying a car without a title, for every legitimate reason like “it went missing when we moved houses,” some scammer is out there telling a boldface lie. Something like “my cheating ex-wife’s new boyfriend took it back to Mexico with him,” followed by some highly offensive comments about Mexicans. I got that one about an old Subaru recently, and needless to say I didn’t buy it.

If the facts don’t add up, buying a car without a title is a bad idea.

The Process of Buying a Car Without a Title

Problems and Inconveniences

Let’s start with the big one: in most states it's illegal to sell, drive, or buy a car without a title. Like coasting through a rural stop sign at 2:00 AM, Johnny Law usually can’t be bothered to throw you in jail over it, but you shouldn't expect a lot of help from the state when you try to replace that lost title.

Another issue is time. The process of replacing a lost title can take anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks depending on the speed of your DMV. That could be a problem for several reasons:

  • It may be difficult or impossible to get license plates

  • Your insurance company may refuse to insure the vehicle

  • You won’t be able to sell or trade the vehicle during that time

It’s not advisable to drive a car without a title, and in many states it’s illegal to do so.

When buying a car without a title, one of the biggest inconveniences is that you can’t get a traditional loan to purchase it. Car loans are issued using the car title as collateral. You would need to take out a personal loan to cover this expense, using your good credit or another form of collateral, and that's not always possible.

The Most Important Thing You Can Do

As far as the act of buying a car without a title, the most critical thing is that you obtain an ironclad bill of sale. As we’ve discussed before, a bill of sale is not a foolproof document. In a legal situation it can go a long way to helping you prove your story, but it doesn’t carry the legal strength of a title regardless of what it contains. Still, when buying a car without a title it’s very important that the bill of sale spells out everything, including:

  • The seller’s story

  • Where the title is believed to be

  • Who last possessed the title

  • Any owners not on record

Additional Details to Include on a Bill of Sale

The minimum information for your bill of sale includes the date, time, and location of the sale, as well as the sale price and the VIN number of the vehicle. When buying a car without a title, you'll want to include as many details as possible about why the title is missing and who had it last. If that's not the person you're buying the car from, include any owners not on record. During the sale, have the seller provide an address and phone number should you need to contact them in the future. Match this information to the seller’s photo ID and have them sign and date the final document.

While it doesn’t replace a car title, the goal of a bill of sale is to create a legal document which, if necessary, could prove your rightful ownership of the car in a court of law.

Why is this so important? Because scammers are ruthless.

Above and Beyond: Additional Safety Measures

This All Seems Like a Bit Much. Why Can’t I Just Buy the Car?

You might think all these safety measures are a bit extreme. I mean, most people are inherently good, right? Still, it's best to protect yourself in case you find a bad apple.

Scammers will stop at nothing to win something for free. When buying a car without a title, one scam tactic is for the seller to claim that you stole their vehicle. As crazy as it sounds, in a court of law it boils down to your word against theirs. Even with a strong bill of sale, that could turn into a lengthy legal battle nobody wants to fight.

This reminds me of the time when one of our staff members got scammed after buying a car without a title, except instead of claiming the car was stolen from them, the seller resorted to straight-up blackmail. The seller came off as a reasonable person until the exact moment he didn’t; nobody saw it coming.

Use Your Resources

You won't find this one in any legal text, but one of our favorite tricks is to record the sale on video. In the modern age of YouTubers and Snapchatters it’s easy to justify having a camera out during a car sale. One method is to leave a dash-mounted camera running in the car that we arrive in. Another is to take photos of the vehicle at the location of the sale, preferably with the seller in them. This makes it difficult for the seller to claim anything outrageous, like “they stole my car” or “they never paid me.”

Note: You should always obtain an individual's permission before recording them.

Is it Possible to Buy a Car Without a Title?

Yes! It just requires a little more caution than the usual car-buying experience.

It’s very important to create a strong bill of sale. Plan on not having the title in your hand for several weeks, and above all else, remember that selling a car without a title is illegal in most states. It’s often a dead giveaway that something is amiss with the title history, so be sure to run the VIN number before the sale takes place. And if the seller won’t provide the VIN, well, there’s your sign.

Call us with any questions or comments about buying a car without a title.

Cover image source

We are not attorneys. This article is not legal advice.