How to Get an Abandoned Vehicle Title
If you find an abandoned car on your property, you can move to take legal ownership of it. However, rules about repurposing abandoned cars differ in each state, so check with your state DMV.
Getting title to an abandoned car can be complicated—it is important to know your rights. Be prepared to pay fees and deal with possible legal challenges and complications that may arise during the process.
That’s why car insurance broker and comparison shopping app Jerry has all the information you’ll need about acquiring a title to an abandoned car.
- Is this vehicle abandoned?
- Contact the owner
- Head to the DMV
- Legally buying the vehicle
- Potential issues
- What to do if you can’t locate the owner
- Find savings with Jerry
How to determine if a vehicle is abandoned
A vehicle can be considered “abandoned” when it is left unattended on the property of another person for a certain amount of time.
Keep in mind, every state has different rules about when and how a vehicle is considered abandoned, so check with your state DMV before starting the process of claiming an abandoned car.
The length of time required to consider a vehicle abandoned differs in each state, so again—check with your local DMV.
Consider your options
Your options and legal rights around claiming an abandoned vehicle will depend on the state you reside in. The process is also different if you find an abandoned car on your property, or elsewhere.
Finding an abandoned vehicle that’s not on your property
If you find an abandoned car, but it’s not on your property, several things need to happen before you can attempt to claim it.
First, local authorities will tow the vehicle. If the car is unclaimed for a certain amount of time (again, this varies by state), and it is deemed to be worth less than a predetermined fee, it will be auctioned off.
So long as the vehicle gets to auction, you’ll have a chance to bid on it. If you are the highest bidder, the vehicle and title will be yours once you’ve paid the auction fee.
Finding an abandoned car on your property
Depending on the state you live in, local authorities may decide to auction the vehicle off, even if it is recovered on your property and you are interested in purchasing it—especially if it is deemed to have some financial value.
So even if you find an abandoned car on your property, you should contact local authorities first before trying to get the vehicle’s title.
Again, in some states, you might be able to bypass the auction and buy the vehicle from its owner if it was found on your property (and if you can locate the owner).
In that situation, the legal owner of the car has to agree to transfer the title to you. But before you take action, be aware of your particular state’s regulations when it comes to claiming abandoned cars.
Even if an abandoned car is found on your property and you show interest in purchasing it, the state may still take possession of the vehicle and auction it off.
Examine the car
So, you’ve found an abandoned vehicle and your mind is ablaze with possibilities of what you could do with it. Excitement aside, give the vehicle a good look. Does it appear drivable, or even salvageable?
It is always a good idea to get a mechanic to examine an abandoned vehicle before pursuing its title.
Keep in mind, abandoned vehicles are often abandoned for a reason.
If you determine that the car has extensive damage or is missing parts, it might be a good idea to bypass trying to obtain the title and contacting the state to have it towed and scrapped.
Contact the owner
Odds are, the owner of an abandoned vehicle won’t be hanging around waiting for someone to claim it. So if you’re serious about pursuing the vehicle, you’ll have to try to track down and contact the owner first.
Find the VIN
You’ll need to find the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to track down the owner. The VIN can be found in a few places. In most autos, the VIN is found on the lower-left corner of the dashboard, in front of the steering wheel.
If you can’t find it there or it’s been scratched off, you can also find the VIN on the front of the car’s engine block. Pop the hood and take a look.
The VIN can be found on the front of the car frame, close to where the windshield washer fluid is located. You can also locate the VIN on the inside of the driver’s door, near the door jamb or door post.
Visit the DMV
Once you’ve found the VIN, head over to your local DMV. The fine folks there will use the VIN to try and track down the owner.
Notifying the owner
In most states, if the vehicle’s owner is found, the state will notify them—via certified mail—that you are pursuing the vehicle’s title.
The local sheriff in the county where the abandoned car was located will also be alerted and notices will be published about the abandoned vehicle in the same area for a few weeks.
The notices will include a full description of the abandoned car, as well as any fees the owner is required to pay.
In some states, it’s illegal to take possession of an abandoned car, even if you manage to track down the owner and the title—so make sure you know the laws in your state before going through the process of transferring ownership.
Legally buying the car from the owner
If the authorities opt to not auction the car off, some states will allow you to attempt to buy it from the owner. Again, you’ll have to double-check if your state allows this.
If you are allowed to purchase the car from the owner, you’ll need to draft a bill with the following information on it:
- The date
- Your name
- The vehicle year, make, model and VIN
- Agreed upon purchase price
- Original owner’s signature
If the owner is willing to simply transfer the car’s title to you, depending on the state (again, sorry), you may need to get a Sales Tax Exemption Certificate Transfer Affidavit. If you’re unsure, ask your local DMV.
You’ll have to double-check with your local DMV about what forms you’ll need to fill out, based on the state you live in. This could mean filing preliminary paperwork describing the vehicle and where you found it.
A notification of sale may be required for the transaction. There may be fees associated with the paperwork, so remember to ask.
There’s always the potential for complications when trying to get title to an abandoned vehicle.
The original owner may have lost the title, but they can apply for a duplicate at the DMV. Keep in mind, there may be a fee for this service.
If the owner doesn’t want to spend time applying for a duplicate title, you can have them sign over power of attorney on the vehicle to you. You’ll then be able to apply for the duplicate yourself.
Small claims court
If the owner refuses to sign over the title to you, and only if the vehicle was found on your property, you can seek control of the title through a claim in small claims court.
In such a case, an owner often (but not always) will refuse to transfer title in an attempt to squeeze more money out of you for the vehicle.
Contact your area’s small claims court for guidance on how to file a claim.
What to do if you can’t locate the owner
If you can’t find the vehicle’s original owner, there is a last option. Inquire with a lawyer about obtaining a quiet title.
If deemed feasible by your lawyer, this court action will allow you to obtain judgment, and would lawfully award the formerly abandoned car to you.
Frequently asked questions
If I find an abandoned vehicle on my property, I can’t just take it?
Nope, you can’t. Rules are different in each state, but all states have their own process that must be followed in regards to finding and claiming abandoned vehicles. Be sure to check with your state DMV before taking any action.
Will I need a lawyer throughout this process?
You might, but most likely only if you are trying to acquire a quiet title to an abandoned vehicle, after all previous attempts at locating the original owner have been exhausted.
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