How Do I Get a Title for a Car That Doesn't Have One?

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A party who wants to get a title for a car that does not have one should visit his local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office. He should call ahead or visit the website of the state’s DMV to determine what documents to bring. The documents may include: the party’s photo identification; the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN; a claim of ownership or involuntary lien form; an odometer disclosure statement; an application for title; the release or bill of sale from the car’s previous owner; and a certificate of vehicle inspection.

In California, a party must also bring a current smog certificate. Usually, the party has to pay a title fee.

Purpose of a Title for a Car

A title certificate, also called a certificate of title or pink slip, proves who owns the vehicle. An individual or a business can own a vehicle. A good title is called a clean title. Other types of titles range from salvage title, for a car with significant mechanical problems, to flood title, for a car that has been damaged by floodwaters that reached its engine compartment.

A car with anything other than a clean title can be prohibitively expensive to insure.

Read More: Car Title Laws

Seller Should Provide Title

A party should reach out to the seller to see whether the seller can get the title. If the car was used as collateral for a loan, the seller’s bank or credit union may have the title.

The seller may be able to apply for a duplicate title. The party can take the application for duplicate title with the bill of sale to the DMV. After a duplicate title has been processed, the original title and prior duplicates will no longer be valid.

Make Sure the Car Isn’t Stolen

A car without title may be stolen. It may also have been used in illegal activities. Before going to a DMV office, a party should do a search using the car’s VIN. She can call or visit her local police department and also access an online database such as the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

Online databases of commercial websites such as the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VINCheck® may be helpful.

When a Car Is a Gift

When a family member gives someone a car, the family member should provide a gift letter stating the giver's and recipient’s names and addresses. The giver should also provide the relationship between the two individuals; the year, make, model and VIN of the vehicle; and a statement as to whether the vehicle will keep its current plates. Some states, like Rhode Island, require that a gift letter from a non-immediate family member be notarized, and the recipient sign a gift affidavit.

What Is a Bonded Title?

In some states, such as Arizona and California, a party can submit a bonded title to show that he owns a vehicle. A bonded title may also be called a Certificate of Title Surety or Certificate of Title Bond. A state usually requires that the car undergo a vehicle inspection before getting a bonded title, and typically requires a party to buy a lost title bond. This one-time purchase protects the party and the state from other individuals who might claim ownership of the car.

Temporary Operating Permit

If there are no problems with processing the title, a DMV office provides the party with a temporary permit, which he can use while he waits for the title. The temporary permit is a temporary registration or operating permit. It is not a temporary driver’s license or identification card.