How to Get an Abandoned Vehicle Title

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You can take ownership of an abandoned car found on your property, but the process to repurpose an abandoned vehicle’s
certificate of title
varies by state. Check your Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for your state’s procedures.
  • If you want to claim an abandoned vehicle on your property, you must first submit the VIN to your local DMV to track down the legal owner.
  • Local law enforcement has the first right to auction off an abandoned vehicle, but you can always attempt to bid on it.
  • If the state chooses not to auction off an abandoned vehicle, you can arrange a title transfer with the current owner or attempt to claim the property in small claims court.

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 or business for a certain amount of time.
Every state has different rules about the length of time required to consider a vehicle abandoned. Check with your state DMV before starting the process of claiming an abandoned car.

Claiming an abandoned car on your property

Contact local authorities before trying to claim ownership if you find an abandoned car on your private property.
Depending on your state, local authorities may decide to auction the vehicle off—even if you are interested in purchasing it. Often, the only way to bypass the auction is to locate the legal owner and
buy the vehicle from them
Key takeaway: 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.

Step 1: Examine the car

Abandoned motor vehicles are often abandoned for a reason. It’s always a good idea to get a mechanic to examine an abandoned vehicle before pursuing its title.

Step 2: Track down 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.
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:
  • The lower-left corner of the dashboard, in front of the steering wheel
  • The front of the car’s engine block
  • The front of the car frame, close to where the windshield washer fluid is located 
  • The inside of the driver’s door, near the door jamb or door post
Once you’ve
found the VIN
, head over to your local DMV. They will use the VIN to track down the property owner.

Step 3: Notify the owner that you're claiming the abandoned vehicle title

If the vehicle owner is found, most states will notify them via certified mail that you are pursuing the vehicle’s title.
The local county sheriff will also be alerted and notices will be published about the abandoned vehicle 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.
Keep in mind: 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. Make sure you know the laws in your state before going through the process of transferring ownership.

Step 4: Legally buying the car from the owner

If the authorities choose not to auction the car off, your state may allow you to attempt to purchase the car from the owner. In this case, you’ll need to draft a
bill of sale
with the following information:
  • 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
transfer the car title
to you, your state may require you to provide a Sales Tax Exemption Certificate Transfer Affidavit, as well.

Potential issues with abandoned vehicles

You may run into the following complications when trying to get an abandoned vehicle title:
  • Lost title: If the current owner lost the original title, they’ll need to
    apply for a duplicate title
    at the DMV. If the owner doesn’t want to deal with the paperwork or fees, you can have them sign over power of attorney and apply for the duplicate yourself.
  • Small claims court: If the abandoned property owner refuses to transfer ownership, you can try to seek control of the title through a claim in small claims court. Contact your area’s small claims court for guidance on how to file a claim.
  • You can’t locate the owner: You may be able to obtain a quiet title with help from a lawyer if you can’t find the current title holder. If deemed feasible by your lawyer, this court action would lawfully award the formerly abandoned car to you.

Claiming 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:
  • Local authorities will first
    tow the vehicle
  • The car will be put to public auction if unclaimed for a certain amount of time and deemed to be worth less than a predetermined fee.
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.
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No. The rules are different in each state, but there is a required process for finding and claiming abandoned vehicles. Be sure to check with your state DMV before taking any action.
Not immediately. You need to legally claim ownership of the vehicle first, which is a complicated process. Make sure that the vehicle is legally abandoned before you do anything.
You’re most likely to need a lawyer only if you are trying to acquire a quiet title to an abandoned vehicle—which is after all previous attempts at locating the original owner have been exhausted.

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