If you’re thinking about buying something with a title, I bet you’re excited to get your hands on the goods. Maybe this is your first rodeo and the process of buying a vehicle looks pretty intimidating. Even seasoned veterans can make mistakes during the process, costing precious time and money.
A little caution goes a long way, so today we're discussing how to tell if you’re about to buy a stolen vehicle or one with outstanding liens.
This doesn’t apply to just private parties – shady dealerships will do any number of things to offload a stolen car or one with title issues.
How to Tell if a Car is Stolen
Spoiler alert: Most of this trouble can be avoided if you simply ask to see the title right off the bat. If the owner can’t produce it, consider the strong chance that there is no title and the seller is trying to pull one over on you. Sometimes there’s a valid reason for a missing title but it’s always best to protect yourself, so look for these other signs while you’re there.
Also, trust people at church, not on Craigslist. People can be assholes when they’re staring at free money.
Locks. You walk up to the car and notice the trunk lock has been punched out. The owner says it’s no big deal, that some kid stole his subs once and he never got around to fixing it. Worse yet, if the door lock is gone that’s a big red flag that something isn’t right.
Ignition. Wires are everywhere, the ignition is gone, or the owner has been starting the vehicle with a screwdriver. I even saw a guy starting a motorcycle with a pocket knife once. Those are big red flags, as you may imagine.
Expired tags. A stolen car’s plates are usually stolen as well, sometimes from a completely different car, and that makes them hard to register.
The title is on its way. Don’t give me that sh*t! Wait the three weeks and give me a call when the title gets here. Until then, sayonara.
The title has been f*cked with. There’s a name, signature, date, scribble, tear, or piece missing from the title. Any of those will probably make it null and void.
The VIN doesn’t match. Read the VIN on the title, then read the VIN on the car. If there’s any difference larger than “that B could be mistaken for an 8,” walk away. I bought a Corvette with the B/8 issue and sorted it out at the DMV later, but I waited until after I bought the car which was still a big risk. Also, learn about the secondary VIN locations on that specific car and make sure all the VINs match, and look for signs of tampering.
The seller is a professional bullsh*tter. You ski? So do I! Have you been to So-n-So Mountain? Me too! I fell off a mountain in Switzerland last year and broke every bone in my body, and somewhere between the boats and the flights and the massive medical bills, the title for my Civic went missing. No worries though, you can just find one of those title companies and get a new title for like 300 bucks. Easy peasy bro! No.
They give you an old title. This actually happened to me. The vehicle’s owner was super chill, the title was clean, and everything about the sale went great. I sent the title in for transfer to my name, and a few weeks later I got a letter from the DMV saying there was a newer title on record than the one I gave them. Oh balls.
How to Tell if a Car Has Liens
What is a Lien?
Liens are what a dealership puts on your title when you borrow money to buy the car. There are many other kinds of liens, including a mechanic’s lien for unpaid work. A lien means that until you pay off the owed balance, the car technically belongs to the lienholder. Hence all those memes like “Does the bank know you’re racing their car?”
If someone manages to sell their car with an active lien, they can dodge the loan and pocket the money. The bank will try to acquire and sell the car to recoup their losses, and if you bought it you’re in deep sh*t even though it’s not really your fault.
YOU CAN BUY A CAR WITH AN ACTIVE LIEN. It just means the transaction needs to happen in front of whatever lender lent the money. You and the seller sit down with the lender, the seller uses your cash to pay off the loan, and the car is yours.
How Do I Spot a Lien?
On the title there’s a space for Lienholder Information. Once the lien has been satisfied, the lender will stamp the title very obviously somewhere near that area and sign the Lien Release section. Some states will issue a new title at that time, one that simply says “previous electronic title” as the lienholder information, indicating a previous lien was satisfied. You’re good to go either way.
If there’s a lien indicated on the title and no clear sign that it’s been satisfied, ask the seller about it. If they say they’ll take care of it after the sale, kindly offer to do the deal at the lender, and if they decline the seller is probably up to no good.
So How Do I Know I’m in the Clear?
Run the VIN first. Most people will understand the need for this on the first phone call, if you simply explain you’re trying to protect yourself from getting burned. If they refuse to give you the VIN, that’s a big red flag. Those rumors about it being dangerous to give out your VIN are false!
One wholesome thing about the internet is free VIN checking. Visit your DMV’s website to see if they provide this service, or try AutoCheck to find or a full vehicle history report to find out about liens, thefts, and any other red flags you need to be aware of before purchasing a car. You can also call the local authorities and ask them to run the plate.
If you’re considering the services of Title Gods, feel free to call us with any questions about the titling process. We can run VINs for you, and we’ll help you navigate those tough situations. And to reward you for being so diligent, use promo code TG50 for $50 off your next order with Title Gods.
Need To Check A Vin?
Ready to check your VIN? Use the dropdown menu to get started. With our basic VIN search, we will find out if your vehicle is stolen or if it has a lien. With our complex search, we can find out the name of the lien holder along with the registered owner's name as well. Once you place the order, we will contact you shortly after with the vehicle VIN report.