How to Obtain Possession of an Abandoned Vehicle in Texas

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A person who wishes to purchase or gain title to an abandoned vehicle in Texas can do so easily, provided they follow the proper process. Law enforcement will seize the vehicle after it has been on public or private property without permission and then will attempt to contact the last owners or lien holders on that vehicle. If an agency cannot do this within a specific time, the car will go up for auction, where another person can purchase it free from liens or title.

Junked vs. Abandoned Vehicles in Texas

Texas defines a junked vehicle as a self-propelled and dismantled (fully or partially), discarded or wrecked vehicle. The car does not work and remains inoperable for more than 72 straight hours on public property, or 30 consecutive days on private property, with an expired license plate or no plate at all. Cities can broaden their definition if the vehicle is a public nuisance, which the state considers as being visible from a public place or right-of-way.

The state considers a vehicle abandoned when it is more than five years old, inoperable and left unattended for more than 48 hours on public property. It may also be on private property illegally for the same amount of time without the consent of the property's owner. An unattended vehicle left on the right-of-way of a designated state, county, federal highway for more than 48 hours is also an abandoned vehicle, as is a vehicle that has been left for more than 24 hours on a Texas Turnpike Authority project or controlled access highway.

In short, a junked vehicle has no registration, doesn't run and presents a public nuisance. An abandoned vehicle may or may not operate or have registration, but it cannot be left unattended on public or private property without permission for a specific period of time.

Disposal of Abandoned Vehicles in Texas

A city law enforcement agency usually removes the abandoned vehicle from public or private property. It will then attempt to notify the last registered owner and each lien holder of the confiscation of the car by certified mail to the last known address within 10 days after taking custody of it. The notice lists certain information:

  • Year, make, model and vehicle identification number (VIN).
  • Location of storage facility where vehicle is held.
  • Owner and lien holder right to claim it within 20 days after notice date on payment of towing, storage charges and preservation fees.
  • Statement that failure to claim the vehicle within the 20-day period waives their rights, title and interest in the car, and gives law enforcement consent to sell it at a public auction.

Law enforcement sends the notice by regular mail on the next business day after taking the car into custody. The owner or lien holder must also pay reasonable storage fees to get back an abandoned vehicle.

Notice by Publication if No One Claims a Vehicle

Law enforcement also gives notice in a newspaper in the abandonment area about holding a public auction of the vehicle. It will do this at the same time it provides information to the last owner and lien holders. The agency can publish multiple listings of abandoned motor vehicles at public auction at once.

The Public Auction Process

If a law enforcement agency cannot find the last registered owner or addresses or information of the lien holders, and no one claims the vehicle within 20 days of sending the notice, it can begin to sell the abandoned vehicle at public auction. They can also transfer it to any county, municipality or school district or use it in their own department. If another entity to which they have transferred the vehicle stops using it, or the law enforcement agency stops using it, it can go up for sale at public auction, but law enforcement must give proper notice of the auction.

Finding a Public Auction

There are auctions of police seizure and impound vehicles all over Texas. Law enforcement agencies and towing companies usually hold public auctions of abandoned cars monthly or quarterly. The easiest way to find an auction of abandoned vehicles is to look for notices in local newspapers or visit the websites of local law enforcement agencies.

Requirements for purchasing an abandoned vehicle differ from location to location. For example, cars at a Houston Police Department auction sell for cash to the highest bidder. The person buying the car must have a valid, state-issued ID in order to bid, and anyone buying five or more vehicles during a calendar year must have a motor vehicle dealer (MVD) license.

After Purchasing the Vehicle

The person who purchases an abandoned vehicle takes title free of ownership by another person or lien holder. They will receive a receipt for their purchase from law enforcement and have the right to register the vehicle in their name and receive a new certificate of title.

Once they deduct these expenses, the agency must hold the remainder of the money for 90 days for the former owner or lien holders to claim it. If they do not, the agency can deposit the funds into an account to pay for other auctions and the towing, storage or preservation of other abandoned cars and their subsequent notices and auction fees. If there is over $1,000 left, the agency can deposit that money into their city's general revenue account for police department use. The agency can also use it to reimburse property owners for damage caused by a criminal pursuit involving local, state or federal law enforcement.