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One of the most important documents you own is the title to your car. Car titles are essential—particularly when it comes to buying or selling a car. Your title acts as definitive proof that you own your vehicle and are legally entitled to sell it. Titles are most often transferred when a vehicle is bought or sold, but there are other situations, such as a name change due to marriage or divorce, that also require a title transfer.

Transferring a car title isn’t difficult, but since it is an important legal document, certain steps must be completed to ensure that the transfer is legally valid.

How to get your car title

If you don’t already have your vehicle’s title, there are several ways to locate it. Today, both paper and electronic titles are valid forms of the document, so don’t be concerned if you have one form and not the other.

Pay off your loan to receive your vehicle title

Most of the time, lenders keep the title on file until the associated loan is paid off, at which time they send the original title document to the vehicle’s owner. In some states, owners may receive the lien release instead. Once you have possession of the title, it’s important to keep it in a safe place. Storing the title in your vehicle is not recommended.

Request a duplicate title from the DMV

You can apply to receive a duplicate title from your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The application forms are available online, or you can pick one up from the DMV office. They can be submitted electronically, in person or through the mail. Make sure you provide the necessary fees and documentation in order to receive your title.

Find a missing title

If your lien was released electronically (and you don’t have a release paper to submit) or you’ve simply misplaced your paper title, you can go to the DMV to apply for a duplicate.

Key information to verify during a title transfer

The title also provides valuable information when you’re buying a car. When you are in the process of transferring a car title, take the opportunity to verify the following information – before money changes hands. The outcome could affect whether or not you want to follow through with the purchase.

  • Check the vehicle identification number (VIN) to ensure the vehicle you receive is the one you were sold. Compare the VIN on the paperwork to the VIN on the vehicle.
    Tip: In modern vehicles, the VIN is usually located in one of two places: on the frame where the driver’s side door opens, or on the driver’s side dashboard where the windshield meets the body of the vehicle.
  • Verify whether there is a lien on the vehicle. In other words, you’re ensuring that the current owner does (or doesn’t) owe a bank money for the vehicle.
    Tip:You can check the lien status of a vehicle by entering its VIN number into your local DMV website. You can also call or visit the DMV and provide this information so they can check the lien status for you.
  • Along the same lines, after confirming that the seller (or the bank) is the owner of the vehicle, you’ll also want to verify that there are no additional owners on the title. If there are, you’ll also need their permission to effectively transfer the title to you.
  • Document the vehicle’s mileage so that you can complete and submit an accurate odometer disclosure.

Making the actual title transfer

Transferring a car title to another owner is a relatively standard process across the country but exact laws vary by state, so be sure to confirm the process with your local DMV. First, request that the seller assign the current title to you with a notarized signature. You’ll need to submit this along with a completed title application and an odometer disclosure agreement. You may also be charged a fee. Then, use the following details to help you correctly maneuver the title transfer process.

When buying from a dealership, the dealership will locate the title for you. If you are paying for the car yourself, the dealer will provide you with the title and coordinate the rest of the paperwork, like the odometer disclosure. If you are financing the vehicle, they’ll send the title to the lender.

When buying from a private seller, expect a slightly more complex process. If the seller has paid off the vehicle and has full ownership, the steps are simple. You just need the owner to sign the seller’s section of the title and give you a bill of sale, then submit the necessary paperwork to the DMV. If you’re financing the vehicle, see “Buying a car with a lien” below.

As the buyer, you are responsible for completing the transfer of ownership and title. You’ll need to submit all the appropriate paperwork, a valid form of ID, inspection forms (if necessary), and required sales tax and fees. You’ll also need to register the vehicle in your name in a timely manner. If assigning the lienholder is not done correctly, or if the DMV is not notified that there is a lien on the vehicle, you may be subject to legal or financial ramifications.

When you're the seller, do the following to ensure a smooth title transfer:
  • Provide a copy of the title to confirm lien and ownership status
  • Assign the title to the buyer, providing a notarized signature if necessary
  • Give your contact information to the buyer, and quickly respond to their inquiries

Buying a car with a lien

If you’re financing—either because there is still a lien on the vehicle from the original purchase or because you took out a loan to pay the seller—the lienholder must be added to the title. You can do this yourself, or you can have the DMV take care of it. Remember, you also need to notify your insurance company if you purchase a car, especially if it has a lien on it, as it can have an impact on your insurance rates.

The seller should provide you with the appropriate financial information needed to complete the transfer. For this reason, it’s vital that the seller provides you with reliable contact information so you can stay in touch with him or her throughout the buying process.

If you have additional questions on the vehicle title transfer process, or are looking for information specific to your state, each state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles website will provide comprehensive information.

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