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What is a Car Title Transfer & How Does it Work?

When you sell or purchase a vehicle, documentation needs to change hands to prove ownership. This ownership document is known as a car title, and a car title transfer is the exchange of title between seller and buyer.

There are two steps to transferring a car title:

  • The seller must release ownership of the vehicle by signing the title.
  • The buyer must take the signed title to the DMV, who will issue a new title and registration.

Before completing a car title transfer, there are several critical pieces of information you'll want to know to make the process as smooth as possible. First, let's look at what precisely a car title is.

What is a Car Title?

A car title is a document proving the legal ownership of a vehicle. You need a car title to register a car with the local Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV. If the car title is not transferred from seller to buyer, the buyer does not have legal ownership of that vehicle.

A car title will contain a wide variety of important details about your vehicle, including:

  • Name and Address: To prove you are the registered owner or buyer of the vehicle, your full legal name and address will be printed on the document. This can assist you in case your car is lost or stolen, as you can quickly prove you are the legal owner.
  • Make, Model, and Year: Manufacturing details like the make, model, and year not only show where your car was made but can help identify it if the need arises. A vehicle's make denotes the company responsible for the manufacturing; the model is the name of the product line the car comes from; and the year is whatever year your specific vehicle was manufactured.
  • VIN Number: A VIN, or vehicle identification number, is a unique combination of 17 characters that serves as your vehicle's unique fingerprint. A VIN is usually a mixture of digits and letters, and no two cars (within a several-decade range) can have the same number.
  • License Plate Number: Like a title, a license plate is required to show legal registration within the state you reside in. Your license plate number will be printed on your car title and can also help identify your vehicle when necessary.
  • Lien Information: A lien functions as an insurance policy for a lender to guarantee repayment of a loan. If your vehicle has a lien, all details related to that lien will be on your car title. This helps ensure the debt is paid before the car can be sold or transferred.
  • Technical Information: The technical information on your car title will include details like its gross weight and purchase price. What info your title contains will depend on the vehicle type and the state you live in.
  • Data specific to title type: While most car titles contain the details above, There are a variety of car titles with different information. These titles can have details about damage, insurance ratings, repairs, and more.

Now that we know what a car title is, how does the process of transferring a title work?

How Does a Car Title Transfer Work?

There are two main steps to transferring a car title:

  • The seller signs the title to release ownership.
  • The buyer then takes the signed title to the DMV, who will issue a new title and registration.

These two steps can be further elaborated as two categories: the seller's responsibility and the buyer's responsibility.

Seller's Responsibility

As the seller of the vehicle, you must complete all the requisite paperwork to finalize the sale. This will vary depending on your state, and you can check your local DMV's website for the exact details. The one step all states require is your signature on the car title, but your state may also ask for a series of documents including:

  • Bill of sale
  • Transfer of ownership form
  • Buyer's name and contact information
  • Sale price
  • Odometer reading

If multiple people own the car, all must sign the document. You also may need to get the document notarized, though this is only required in some states. Once you have assembled all the paperwork and signed the title, you will give them to the buyer.

Buyer's Responsibility

Once you have the car title, it's your responsibility as the buyer to take the documents to the DMV. If the purchase occurs through a dealer, they may handle all of this paperwork for you; then, you will receive your new title from the DMV in the mail. But if the sale is done privately, you will have to complete this step on your own.

Ensure the seller has provided all of the documents listed under the "Seller's Responsibility" section and you've gathered all the necessary personal information. This information may include proof of residence documents, your driver's license, and possibly another form of identification.

You may also need to pay a title transfer fee, ranging in price from state to state. In Washington, for example, a title transfer fee is $15.50. In addition, there may be other costs associated with getting the new vehicle, like a registration fee and plate transfer fee.

You will also want to check whether the vehicle has an active lien against it. There is a slightly different set of procedures to follow if it does.

What If I Want to Transfer a Car with a Lien?

If the only name on the car title is the seller's, that means that it is entirely within their rights as the owner to transfer the title. However, if there is a lender's name on the title, that means there is a lien on the car. The lien and the associated loan must be settled before the vehicle can be sold. It is sometimes possible to transfer a car title with an active lien, but it can make the process more complicated. The seller should contact the lender for more details on how the transfer should be completed.

Cars can also be owned by two entities, like a married couple. If this is the case, you will see two full names on the car title. If two people own the vehicle, both parties' permission is required before a car can be sold. If the vehicle is purchased, both people also need to sign the title to complete the transfer.

Car Title Transfer Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Transfer a Car Title to a Family Member?

Transferring a car title to a family member is the same process as through a private sale. Simply have the car's current owner sign the title, complete all other paperwork required by your state, and have the family member take the documentation to the local DMV.

What Should I Do If I Want to Give My Car as a Gift Or Donation?

If you want to give your car as a gift, you'll need to follow a similar set of procedures as you would for a traditional car title transfer. This process varies from state to state: For example, Washington requires you to bring a completed bill of sale (even if a "sale" didn't take place), application for new title, current vehicle title, and title transfer fees.

If you want to donate your car, you can do so with much less fuss. The exact procedures for donation will depend on what organization you donate it to. Habitat for Humanity is a good charity that takes vehicles, and has precise guidelines to donation available on their website.

What Are the Different Types of Car Titles?

The ten most common types of car titles include:

  • Clean
  • Junk
  • Salvage
  • Reconstructed
  • Bonded
  • Rebuilt
  • Affidavit
  • Odometer Rollback
  • Water Damage
  • Dismantled

How Much Does A Car Title Transfer Cost?

The total cost of a car title transfer differs from state to state. For example, in Washington State, a car title transfer fee is $15.50. The best way to find the total cost of a car title transfer is by visiting your local DMV, either in person or on their website.

What Happens If I Lose My Title After It's Transferred?

After the title is transferred, it is your responsibility to keep it safe; the seller no longer has to assist you in any way. To replace a title, you'll first want to check your local DMV's website for guidance on your state's replacement requirements. For the general process to replace a title, you can follow three steps:

  • Fill out a document known as an affidavit of loss or release of interest form. These are provided by the DMV, and you'll need to fill them out with your legal name, current address, driver's license number, and other personal details. You may also need to provide the vehicle's license plate number, VIN, as well as the year, make, and model.
  • Once the form is completely filled out, and you've double-checked all the information, you need to sign it at the bottom with the current date legibly. Depending on your state's requirements, you may also need to get it notarized.
  • Most states do not have a way to submit an affidavit of loss electronically, which means you will either have to mail it in or drop it off at the DMV personally. In addition, you may be required to pay a replacement title fee, ranging from $25 to $80, in various states. After you've turned in your document and paid the fees, your duplicate title should arrive in the mail in several weeks.

Where Can I Get More Information About My New Vehicle?

Before completing a car title transfer, you want to get more information about your potential purchase. If you're going to get the complete vehicle history report, conduct a VIN lookup, or find a list of recalls related to the vehicle, you'll need a vehicle research tool. GoodCar can help you find all the details you need to make an informed purchase; we source our information from thousands of databases to get the relevant facts and figures about your car. Don't make the mistake of buying a bad vehicle; let us help. Try our search engine today!