Your car title is legal proof that you own your vehicle. If you want to sell your car, the new owner will need the vehicle title to get the car registered in their name. But how does transferring a car title work? Is it a lengthy process?
Fortunately, the process to transfer a car title isn’t typically lengthy or complicated, but there are some important details to be aware of. Here’s what you need to know if you want to transfer a car title and pass ownership of a motor vehicle to someone else.
What is a car title?
A car title, or certificate of title, serves as proof of ownership for a vehicle and is an important document to keep safe. But you likely don’t want it kept in the glove box like your vehicle registration or insurance information because you don’t want it stolen.
You may have received your original title from a dealership, a bank or other financial institution, or a previous owner. Car titles may have different information on them depending on the state you live in, but they typically include a lot of the same data.
Here’s the information you can expect to find on a car title:
- Title number
- Legal name of the vehicle owner
- Owner’s mailing address
- Vehicle information, such as make, model, body type, and year
- Vehicle identification number (VIN)
- Odometer reading
- Date the title was issued
- Fuel type
- Lien holder information
Keep in mind that your car title is filed with the state in which the vehicle was originally registered. For example, if you buy a new car in New York from a dealership, it’s likely to be registered in New York and you’ll have a New York car title. However, you may be required to apply for a new title if you move to another state.
In addition, you likely need to transfer a car title whenever ownership changes. This could include selling the car to someone else, gifting the car to a friend or family member, or inheriting a vehicle if the owner dies.
Before you do anything — make sure your title is transferable
Before you can transfer a car title, you have to first make sure the title is transferable. This is an important step in knowing how to sell your car and typically involves checking to see what names are listed as owners on the title.
If only your name is listed as a registered owner on the title, it’s typically quick and easy to transfer ownership because you have full control of the transaction. However, you might see other names listed on the title, such as a spouse, cosigner, or a bank or lender. If this is the case, you typically need to have all parties agree before you can transfer ownership.
A bank or lender’s name often shows up as a lien holder on the title, which typically means the car is being financed and needs to be paid off before it can be sold. You will need to pay off the loan to become the sole owner or reach an agreement with the lender to transfer ownership of the car.
In the case there isn’t a lien holder on the title, but there is the name of a spouse or cosigner, check the specific wording on the car title. If there is an “and” between the names of the two parties, you both likely need to agree to transfer ownership. If there is an “or” between the names of the two parties, it’s likely that only one party needs to agree to the transfer.
The types of transfers
Transferring a car title may be simple if you own the vehicle outright and there are no other parties involved. Or it might get more complicated depending on the situation. Here are a few common situations you might encounter if you need to transfer a car title:
Owning a vehicle outright means the only name listed on the title is yours. There’s no lien holder, spouse, or cosigner. If this is the case, it should be simple to transfer ownership.
The typical process for a simple transfer is for the owner to sign the designated area on the title to show they are selling the vehicle. This will typically be accompanied by information about how much the vehicle is being sold for, odometer disclosure (the current odometer reading), and the date of the sale.
The buyer would then fill out their portion of the title with their name, address, and signature. It’s also recommended to have a bill of sale when buying or selling a vehicle to have a record of the transfer. If you don’t know how to write a bill of sale for a car, many state Department of Motor Vehicles websites provide free templates you can print out and use.
Transfers with lenders
If you have an outstanding loan amount on your vehicle, you will need to speak with your lender before you can sell it. Your lender, or the lien holder, will let you know the possibilities for selling your vehicle while you still owe money on it. This is because the lender is basically a part owner of the vehicle and, in many cases, may hold the physical title to your car.
The easiest solution is to pay off the loan so you have full ownership of the vehicle. Then you can sell your car without needing permission from a lender. However, this isn’t always possible. If you don’t have the cash, you might get a personal loan to pay off the vehicle, and then pay off the personal loan once you receive the funds from the car buyer.
In some cases, you might be able to transfer the loan to the buyer. In this scenario, the new owner takes on the responsibility of paying off the remaining balance. Whether you can do this will depend on your lender.
Transfers with dealerships
Selling or trading in your car to a dealership is typically simple and might be quicker and easier than trying to find a private buyer. Dealers handle title transfers regularly, so you shouldn’t expect any hiccups throughout the process.
You’ll need to sign the title over to the dealership and they’ll need to sign the title as the buyer. If there are multiple selling parties involved on your side, you’ll need to get the necessary signatures from each party. If you have a lien on your title, you’ll have to come to an agreement with the dealership about how the lien will be taken care of, as well as contact your lender to talk through scenarios.
Out-of-state transfers typically involve having a car title in one state and transferring that title to another state. If you’re moving to another state or buying a car from another state, you might have to do an out-of-state transfer.
The steps for completing an out-of-state transfer can vary by state, so be sure to check the requirements in your state. Common requirements include having the out-of-state title, filling out a title application form in the new state, and getting your vehicle inspected if needed.
Transfers from a deceased owner
A transfer from a deceased owner can occur if you inherit a vehicle from a dead friend or relative. To take ownership of the vehicle, you have to get your name on the title, which is of course more challenging in this scenario.
The requirements for transferring a car title can vary depending on the state you live in and the situation. You most commonly need a copy of the death certificate of the deceased individual, but you may also need a court letter specifying certain information about the estate of the deceased. Check with your state’s DMV office to see what documents are required in your state for this type of transfer.
How to transfer your car title if you’ve lost it
A car title is often nothing more than a piece of paper, which makes it easy to lose or misplace. If you want to sell your vehicle but can’t find your car title, you’ll have to contact your local DMV before you can transfer ownership of the vehicle. This is because you’ll need a duplicate or replacement car title issued before you can go through with the transfer.
The process for replacing your car title can vary, so check the DMV website for your state to see the steps. It’s not uncommon to have to fill out and submit a form or two, as well as pay a duplicate title fee.
Keep in mind that the process for getting a duplicate title may take some time, possibly a week or more. Figure this processing time into your plans if you’re looking to sell your vehicle soon.
How much it costs to sign over your car title
The cost to transfer or sign over your car title to someone else can depend on where you live and the type of vehicle being transferred. Here are a few costs you might have to consider when transferring a car title:
- Transfer fee: Your state may require a flat transfer fee to transfer your car title to someone else. The amount of this fee varies by state. For example, California charges $15, but New York charges $10.
- Sales tax: You typically have to pay sales and/or use tax when registering a vehicle you bought from a private seller. If you buy a vehicle from a dealer, the sales tax is typically paid to the dealer. The sales tax is based on the purchase price of the vehicle. Some states don’t require sales tax to be collected on private party vehicle sales or gifts.
- Notarized bill of sale: If you live in a state that requires a notarized bill of sale to accompany a car title during a transfer of ownership, you likely have to pay to get the bill of sale notarized. Getting a document notarized doesn’t typically cost more than $10 or $15.
- Inspection and/or emissions: Certain states may require a vehicle safety inspection or a smog check (emissions test) before a transfer of ownership can be completed with a car registration. These fees can vary depending on the state and the business administering the tests. For example, emission inspections fees in Utah generally range from $20 to $30.
When I transfer my car title, do I keep my license plates?
It may depend on where you live, but some states recommend you remove your license plates from a vehicle when you transfer the car title to someone else. This is because the new owner will receive their own set of plates when they register the car. It also protects you from receiving parking or traffic violations from someone else using a vehicle with your plates on them. In other states, like California, the plates are required to remain with the vehicle unless you make a special request.
Can you change titles online?
Yes, you can change titles online if the state you live in offers online title transfer. For example, California offers online title transfers, but you’ll need certain information and documentation. This includes the signed certificate of title, your personal information, and the vehicle’s information.
What happens if a buyer never registers a car you sold them?
If a buyer never registers a car you sold them, it’s likely the state the car is registered in will recognize you as the legal owner of the vehicle. This can cause problems if the vehicle is then involved in parking or traffic violations.
You can’t force someone to register the vehicle, but you can take steps to ensure you have the legal documentation to prove you sold the vehicle and transferred ownership. This could include the signed certificate of title, as well as a signed bill of sale. In some states, it could be as simple as reporting the sale of the vehicle, which you might be able to do online.
Knowing how to transfer a car title can come in handy if you’re in the process of buying or selling a vehicle. Having this knowledge allows you to approach the process with more confidence because you’ll already know what steps you have to take.
And if you’re transferring a car title because you’re getting a new car, make sure you also search around for the best insurance policy for your new vehicle. This can help you save money after you’ve likely spent money on different costs, such as title and registration fees.
To compare what’s available in your area from different providers, check out our list of the best car insurance companies.