Has someone abandoned a vehicle on your property? Are you looking to buy an abandoned vehicle you found somewhere else? Before you make any decisions, learn about the related laws by reading this article. We’ll tell you everything you need to know, starting with the legal definition of an abandoned vehicle and ending with some common situations where you might encounter one.
Soon you’ll be prepared to buy, sell, or trade for an abandoned car with confidence.
What is an Abandoned Vehicle?
An abandoned vehicle is defined by law as a vehicle which has been left unattended on public or private property without notice to the property’s owner. Any attempt to remove or claim ownership of the vehicle must originate from the lawful owner of the property. In some states, that person cannot obtain legal ownership of the vehicle.
Depending on the state, the minimum time before a vehicle is considered abandoned ranges from a few hours to 30 days. This timeframe changes further based on whether the vehicle was abandoned on public property, private property, or along a roadway.
If you encounter an abandoned vehicle as a property owner or a passerby, don’t do anything until you understand your state’s abandoned vehicle laws. Also keep in mind that an abandoned car is often a stolen car – take extra precautions when approaching an abandoned car.
Abandoned Vehicle Laws by State
Each state defines abandoned vehicles differently. Learn about your state’s laws before attempting to move or claim ownership of an abandoned car.
Here’s a list of abandoned vehicle laws by state:
This list is accurate to our knowledge as of July 2018. We try to keep it updated, but please contact us if you notice any issues.
Abandoned Vehicles: Common Misconceptions
The most common misconceptions about abandoned vehicles stem from the legal definition above, and the following scenarios illustrate that confusion. Keep in mind that some states expressly forbid property owners from taking ownership of abandoned cars, while others will never classify a vehicle as abandoned if it’s out of public view. When in doubt, check your state’s laws.
How to Report an Abandoned Vehicle
A family friend of mine owns a historic one-room schoolhouse in a small town. A few weeks ago, a drunk driver abandoned his car there and it later caught fire. Both it and the schoolhouse burned to the ground. The schoolhouse was a tragic loss for the community, but my friend was able to determine the car’s legal owner thanks to our state’s abandoned car laws, and justice was served.
How to address an abandoned car depends on where it sits.
On public property
If you suspect a vehicle has been abandoned on public property, be reasonably sure of this before notifying your local authorities. You wouldn’t want to have someone’s car towed for no reason.
On private property
If you suspect a vehicle has been abandoned on private property other than yours, notify the local authorities after attempting to contact the property’s owner.
On your own property
If someone abandons a vehicle on your property, follow the notification process for your state before doing anything else. It may be illegal to have the vehicle towed or take any other action.
There’s an Abandoned Car on Your Property and You Want It
The process for obtaining legal ownership of an abandoned vehicle that was left on your property generally looks something like this:
Ask local authorities to identify the last registered owner
Notify the owner of the abandonment at least once
File the appropriate paperwork with the state
Depending on the state, the vehicle will either be sold at auction or sold/transferred directly to you. Additional paperwork is usually required either way.
You Find an Abandoned Car You Want to Buy
You’re out for a drive when you spot a rusty quarter-panel poking out from under a tree. Upon closer inspection you realize you’re looking at a 1969 Dodge Charger, an incredible find to any muscle car enthusiast – one that’s worth big bucks no matter its condition.
The property looks to have been abandoned for years. How do you go about buying that car? In other words, how do you buy an abandoned car from someone else’s property?
The wrong way: steal it
Whatever you do, DON’T STEAL IT. Every year we hear from people who just waltzed in and stole an abandoned car off someone else’s property. Little did they know that car was very much not abandoned, and the rightful owner soon reported the theft. We’re talking about Grand Theft Auto – and not the fun kind.
The right way: buy it
If it’s safe, start by asking the neighbors about the abandoned car. Chances are they will own it or know someone who does. If that goes nowhere, follow these steps:
Legally obtain the car’s VIN number
Run a VIN Check to determine the last registered owner
Contact that owner and inquire about the car
The last resort: a declaratory judgement
Things get complicated if the last registered owner of an abandoned vehicle has died, become incarcerated, or is otherwise unreachable. In that case, you could file for a declaratory judgement in your local court. This will give you the opportunity to present the facts of the abandonment to a judge and argue for legal ownership of the vehicle.
A declaratory judgement is very much a last resort. You need an ironclad reason to bring a case before a judge. Don’t waste their time and yours with a weak argument.
In general terms, a declaratory judgement probably won’t work if the abandoned vehicle is located on private property. The judge may elect to contact the owner’s next of kin or employ other methods to find a rightful legal owner of the vehicle. A declaratory judgement may proceed in your favor if no rightful owner can be located, if the property is owned by a government entity or a defunct business, or if the vehicle or property is a known eyesore in the community.
Getting a Title for an Abandoned Vehicle
Whether someone left an abandoned vehicle on your property or you found one you’d like to own, the title was probably lost at some point. Good thing Title Gods specializes in recovering lost titles. Contact us after you legally obtain the vehicle and we’ll get you a replacement title in a matter of weeks!
We are not attorneys. This article is not legal advice.