How to Sign Over the Title to a Used Car

Signing car title
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Probably the most important step in buying or selling a used car is signing over the title. It is that piece of paper, above all others, that makes you the true owner of the car if you are the buyer, and it releases you from all further obligations as owner of the vehicle if you are the seller.

It is common for mistakes to be made when signing over​ the title to a used car after you complete the sale. You're probably going to encounter most problems when signing over a used car title from a private seller, but that doesn't mean dealerships don't make paperwork mistakes. You need to be just as vigilant in those transactions, too.

In either case, take your time when finishing the paperwork to make sure everything goes correctly the first time. It is going to save you hours, if not days, of headaches down the road.

Make Sure the Numbers Match

Make sure the vehicle identification numbers (VIN) on the car you are buying match up with the VIN numbers on that vehicle's title. This is perhaps the most important step in the entire process because it ensures you are purchasing the actual vehicle for which you have title. The VIN is almost always located on the driver's side of the windshield. If not, check the owner's manual.

Check the Mileage

Make sure the mileage matches up to the number shown on the title. The number on the odometer should not be below the last recorded mileage on the title without some proof of why that is. An unexplained lower number (without documented proof) is a sign the odometer has been tampered with. In which case, do not buy this car.

Search For Liens

Make sure there are no liens on the title. In other words, that the owner isn't still paying it off, that it isn't considered an asset by a business, or isn't included as part of disputed property in a lawsuit like a divorce. A title that shows a lien, without documentation that is has been paid off, means the owner has no right to sell it to you.

Confirm Ownership

Make sure it's clear who the new owner is. Many titles read as confusing, so it's not always clear what name should go where. We know of one instance in which the seller wrote his name in the section where the new owner's names was supposed to go. In effect, the seller signed over the vehicle to himself. That creates a paperwork nightmare. When that happens, you have to stop the sales transaction. The seller needs to get a duplicate title or take other means to correct the mistake. Until that happens, do not proceed with the sale. We can't emphasize that strongly enough.

Unfortunately, once the paperwork is filled out incorrectly, there is no one set of advice that works in every situation because laws vary from state to state. Getting a notarized statement from the seller about the error in paperwork, and that it was his or her intent to transfer title of the vehicle, will help make the process smoother.

Include a Bill of Sale

Get a bill of sale to go with your new title. It's going to make the transfer of ownership much simpler if you do that, and it's yet another document that proves your ownership of the vehicle.

Negotiate Terms that Work For Both Parties

You obviously don't want to pay for a used car until you have a clean title that has been filled out correctly. On the other hand, the owner is going to want to know that you can and will pay for the car before signing over its title. Make sure you and the seller agree on how best to proceed. We suggest not turning over payment until your name is correctly filled out on the buyer's line. Once that's done, pay the seller and then have him or her sign the title over to you.