A Bad or Missing Title Can Derail That Project | Column

Like the shark that never stops swimming, I am always looking for the next beat-up, forlorn car to rescue and fix up in the pages of this publication.

I’ve seen a lot of things during my searching, but the one that still manages to surprise me is how many people sell old cars without clear titles. One would think that having a car’s title in good order would be an automatic part of any sale. It’s as basic as hand washing after a trip to the bathroom.

Sadly, not everybody washes their hands. So I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that clean title habits are not the norm in our world. 

Most states require buyers to pay sales tax when they title a car, and I get that some people are too cheap to pay the fee to complete a proper transfer of title. I truly believe, however, that most of these sellers are just too disorganized or lazy to get the title work done correctly.

As you would expect, title problems seem to be most frequent at the low end of the market, but they are not universally limited to that side of our world. I’ve seen it all—including the guy who swore on the phone that he had the title right in his hand, but then somehow “lost” it the hour it took me to drive over to pick up the car. 

I have bought abandoned cars, cars that were caught up in the middle of a divorce (that can get real messy), and cars that were imported from other countries and never titled. I have titled salvaged wrecks and home-built kits. None of these were easy, but I got the titles.

Do me a favor: If you are selling a car, do not advertise it until you have the title in hand—as in, actually in your hand. 

Also, make sure the title you are holding has your name on it. Now, I realize that open titles are a common thing at the low end of the classic car market, especially among people who want to flip cars, since they allow people to sell cars without ever having put their names on the titles. (Open titles are still in the name of the person who sold the car to the current owner, but that previous owner has signed it as “seller,” while no one has signed as “buyer,” leaving the title ready to be transferred to whomever.) 

This may sound like a great, super flexible way to sell a car, but in addition to not being legal, it can be hazardous to both buyer and seller. 

As a buyer with an open title, you are never legally the owner, so if you lose that title, your state has no record of you ever owning that car. As far as they’re concerned, it still belongs to the person who sold it to you. Good luck getting a replacement title.

As a seller on an open title, you retain liability (legal ownership) while relinquishing control. I sold a Spitfire some 20 years ago, and the new owner apparently never titled it. I know this because he sold it to someone else who also didn’t title it, and that person then wrecked and abandoned it. As the last registered owner, I got the call from the state of Florida some 15 years later telling me that I needed to pay the $300 towing bill and come get my car back. That one worked out okay, but it could have easily gone much, much worse for me.

Any time you sell a car, have the purchaser fill in his portion of the title in your presence. If your state, like Florida, provides a form with your title that you are supposed to use to notify the state that you have sold the car, use it. 

Any time you buy a car, make sure the correct seller’s name is on the title. You also need to carefully compare the VIN on the title with the serial number on the car; make sure they match. 

Let me stress again: Check the VINs. Some years ago I bought a Corvair, sight unseen, on eBay. The car and the title arrived, and I discovered that two numbers had been transposed on the title. This simple clerical error put me through hell. I ended up overnighting documents back and forth to California several times before I got them to admit their clerical error and fix it.

It can be possible to get a title for a car that has a bad or missing title, but it’s never easy. So do as I say and not as I do, and make sure your paperwork’s straight. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to the garage and figure out why I have two titles for the Bugeye Sprite I just bought. Hey, the price was low and I took the risk. You should not.

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stuart in mn
stuart in mn MegaDork
5/17/21 2:57 p.m.

Also, make sure the title you are holding has your name on it. Now, I realize that open titles are a common thing at the low end of the classic car market, especially among people who want to flip cars, since they allow people to sell cars without ever having put their names on the titles. (Open titles are still in the name of the person who sold the car to the current owner, but that previous owner has signed it as “seller,” while no one has signed as “buyer,” leaving the title ready to be transferred to whomever.) 

Sometimes sellers keep the title open so they claim the car is "one owner", since the title is still in the name of that person.  It's dishonest at least.

In any case, I too am always amazed at the number of old cars without titles.  The sellers are just too lazy or cheap to get it fixed (yes, I realize some states don't require titles for old cars, but most still do.)

Another thing from the other side of the story:  when selling a vehicle (with a clear title, of course) make sure to let your state's DMV know that it's been sold to avoid any problems caused by the buyer if they don't get it transferred.  In Minnesota I can just go to the DMV website and fill out a simple form, I imagine other states have something similar.

Panamericano
Panamericano New Reader
5/18/21 3:00 p.m.

If the buyer doesn't transfer the title, you can get a bunch of parking tickets in the mail.  I did.  I figured out their likely apartment complex and went over and removed both license plates.  Took the plates to the municipal parking office and told them the car would probably be reregistered soon.  They canceled my tickets. 

 

Took months to get the title straight on my Birkin.  Finally discovered how the clerk in Illinois read the handwritten application.  410 had been titled aas L110.  So they could not find record to issue a replacement title for 410.  Sent them photos of the chassis stamping and explanation.  It takes persistance with a DMV.

914Driver
914Driver MegaDork
5/19/21 6:34 p.m.

Saratoga Auto Museum is hosting a Porsche event called Rare Air.  The day before opening the  owner (of 130 cars) Steven Harris walked staff and volunteers through each car.  Some surprisingly have Montana plates.

Give a lawyer $100 and he creates an LLC, give the car to the company, Huzzah!  Hello Montana.  No front plate, no annual inspection, no history required.

Dan

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
5/24/21 5:08 p.m.

In reply to 914Driver :

Good point. We need to do a story on this Montana phenomenon.

elchinero
elchinero New Reader
6/6/21 2:21 p.m.

In reply to Tim Suddard :

South Dakota, too.  My '86 Toy @22R P/U has SD title and plates ... and lives in Baja.

Apis Mellifera
Apis Mellifera Dork
6/8/21 10:49 a.m.

Vermont works too and does not require an LLC or anything other than paying the sales tax.  I got a plate and registration for a '72 Gran Torino mailed to me five states away.  I've never set foot in VT and they don't seem to care.  They do assign their own value for tax purposes and that value is inflated (imagine that).  Then I took the VT registration card to my DMV, filled out a form, and they printed a title.

Alabama is another pretty easy avenue.  I got a '57 Triumph TR3 purchased from Alabama titled just last week.  All you need is a BOS, letter from AL DMV saying they didn't title prior to 1975, and a registration card.  Give those to your DMV... along with your tax money and here's your title.

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