Requirements for Registration of a Utility Trailer in California

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California requires the registration of most utility trailers with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Permanent Trailer Identification (PTI) program, which ensures that owners properly title and maintain the trailers to make them safe for themselves, other drivers and their cargo, particularly animals. Most people who own utility trailers can use this service, but it does have a few exceptions.

Utility Trailer Types and Their Uses

Utility trailers exist in several different sizes and shapes. Some open, allowing for the dumping of their contents, and some have enclosed walls. Most have multiple functions for transporting goods. A basic utility trailer usually has a tailgate, a platform, wheels and guardrails around it and is helpful for noncommercial drivers when moving equipment or supplies from place to place.

Different types of utility trailers include:

  • Lowboy trailers that adjust to a shallow deck height, making loading and unloading heavy objects easy. These trailers usually carry moving equipment that doesn't fit on a flatbed trailer or on a single-drop trailer.
  • Car haulers move vehicles from one place to another. The trailer can be a simple car dolly attached to a vehicle's two front wheels or a hydraulic car carrier trailer with a tilting cab that a driver can drive up on.
  • Dump trailers operate much as dump trucks do – their platform lifts at an angle to dump the trailer's contents on the ground. They work well for moving objects in mounds, like dirt, gravel or mulch.
  • Enclosed utility trailers, also known as cargo trailers, offer protection from the elements for animals, equipment and supplies.
  • Flatbed utility trailers do not have guardrails, unlike a basic utility trailer. They have different configurations, but the most common is a deck above the trailer's wheels which has the flattest load area possible in a utility trailer.

California DMV Permanent Trailer Identification Program

California has a Permanent Trailer Identification (PTI) program through the DMV that owners use when registering their utility trailers. The department issues a PTI license plate and a permanent ID card instead of standard trailer plates. When initially converting to the program, the DMV allows trailer owners to retain their existing plate numbers or to exchange their old trailer plate for a PTI plate for free. The agency does not offer Partial Year Registration (PYR) or Permanent Fleet Registration (PFR) for utility trailers, and owners cannot register them under the International Registration Plan (IRP).

Trailer owners can also retain special interest or personalized plates on their PTI trailers, which are not subject to registration fees, including California Highway Patrol (CHP) fees, county fees, licensing fees or weight fees. However, when renewing a PTI trailer registration, fees for special plates may be due to the DMV office.

Utility Trailer Registration Process in California

While PTI trailers do not have annual registration fees, owners must pay a maintenance service fee or file the Planned Non-Operation Certification (PNO–REG 102) form every five years. This process began with registrations that expired on or after December 31, 2006.

When registering a trailer with the PTI program, owners must use the DMV's form REG 4017. Owners who want a paper title for their trailer should complete and sign Side A of the document. The owner will fill out Side B when transferring a trailer's ownership without a paper title through a registered owner transfer or when releasing a lien holder or legal owner.

Utility Trailer's Certificate of Title

The DMV doesn't automatically issue a paper title until full payment of a lien occurs. Instead, owners have access to Electronic Lien and Titling (ELT). When they satisfy their lien, the DMV receives notification and issues the paper title to the vehicle's registered owner or a new lien holder.

Lien holders do not have to wait for a paper title to have proof of lien fulfillment. An electronic notification comes the next business day, with the necessary information included. ELT also offers these transactions:

  • Paper title release to the utility trailer's registered owner without their change of address.
  • Paper title release to the utility trailer's new legal owner with a certificate of registration sent to the registered owner.
  • Ability to change the lien holder branch/location with a certificate of registration sent to the registered owner.
  • Paper title release to the lien holder with no changes. No registration certificate is required.
  • Paper title release to a dealer, auction or insurance company. No registration certificate required for the registered owner.

Trailers Excluded From the PTI Program

The DMV excludes some utility trailers from the PTI program. These trailers must apply for the standard annual registration:

  • Coach Boat Trailers: Owners must register a trailer coach with a hull as a dual vehicle/vessel.
  • Park Trailers (like campers or travel trailers) under California Health and Safety Code Section 18009: Owners must register a utility trailer designed for human inhabitants and seasonal or recreational use that has less than 400 square feet of floor area, excluding the loft, built on single chassis, and transported via highways with a California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) permit.

Manufactured homes and park trailers must have a label or data plate detailing its construction. Park trailers display an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) label from the DMV, while manufactured homes display a HUD data plate from the California Department of Housing Community Development (DHC).

Utility Trailer Insurance

A utility trailer owner should have insurance for their trailer, but how they buy it is up to them. This type of policy provides the money necessary to pay third parties for damage or injury from accidents involving the trailer. It may also cover legal and court fees up to the policy limit. Car insurance also provides some coverage, but additional liability for the trailer may be necessary, depending on its use.

Trailer owners may want to have other types of insurance coverage depending on their needs. For example, collision coverage compensates for repairing or replacing the trailer if an accident occurs regardless of fault. Comprehensive coverage finances an owner when repairing or replacing a trailer involved in a noncollision-related occurrence, such as a fire, flood, theft, vandalism or storm in which the trailer is damaged by falling debris.

Contents coverage compensates an owner to repair or replace the objects transported, regardless of fault, but live animals need a specific type of insurance coverage. Finally, roadside assistance covers towing or breakdowns if the trailer becomes inoperable while on the road.