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Top Tips For Buying A Car Online From A Private Seller

Buying a used car is an excellent way to get a great vehicle at a fraction of the price you’d pay for a brand-new model. When you buy from a dealership, they are responsible for getting you your title. However, when you buy from a private seller, some of that responsibility falls on you.

The vehicle title is the most important document in a vehicle transaction, but it’s also frequently overlooked. Before jumping into the private seller online market, be sure that you’re clear on your responsibilities in obtaining your title and what red flags to look out for.

Tip #1: Make sure the seller has the original title in hand.

The only title that is valid is the original certificate of title. The seller cannot provide a copy of the current title or a prior title with a former owner on it. If the seller cannot produce the title and refuses to get a duplicate title, this is a major red flag. This could indicate that the seller doesn’t have the title, there are title problems, or that the vehicle isn’t actually theirs to sell.

Always make sure that you have the valid original certificate of title in your hands at the time of purchase. If you pay the seller without getting the title signed over to you, your money is 100% vulnerable to being lost. Without the title signed over to you, you are not considered the legal owner. Until that title is in your name, you have no legal claims to the vehicle, you’ve just spent a few hundred or thousand dollars. If that vehicle ends up having a VIN problem or a title problem, you could be out of that money because those vehicles typically don’t end up back on the road.

If there’s no title, don’t continue the transaction.

Tip #2: Match the seller’s photo ID to the certificate of title

Unless there is a special circumstance that you are aware of and have documentation for, such as a power of attorney, only the current owner listed on the front of the certificate of title can assign ownership to someone else. If they are not listed as the owner of the front of the title, they should not be assigning ownership of the vehicle to you. If there are two names on the title, but only one person is the seller, you must get the other owner to sign the title as well. The transfer is only considered valid if all owners sign off on the title transfer.

Request to see the seller’s photo ID before signing anything. If the photo ID doesn’t match the name on the title and there isn’t a power of attorney, this is a big red flag.

Tip #3: Check for physical and historical defects on the title.

A title that has any sort of defect, whether it be physical or historical, may be ineligible to obtain a title.

Physical title defects

Physical title defects are defects to the certificate itself. A certificate of title will be considered void if it has any stray marks, rips, tears, tape, staples, spills, coffee rings, or any other sort of alterations not made by the DMV. Even if you can clearly read the text on the title through the soda stain, it is still considered void. In this case, the seller will need to obtain a duplicate title before it can be transferred.

Historical title defects

Historical title defects are considered title brands and liens. If the vehicle has a lien on the title, the seller cannot legally transfer it until the lienholder has been removed from the title. The lienholder’s name will be listed next to the owner’s name on the certificate of title. In this instance, the seller will need to obtain a vehicle lien release.

One of the most common historical title defects is a salvage title brand. Many vehicles look perfectly fine and normal but will have a salvage title due to prior insurance loss claims or theft. A vehicle with a salvage title brand will have SALVAGE printed at the top of the title. Most vehicles that receive a salvage title brand or other nonrepairable or junk brand are not intended to go back on the road. Salvage title vehicles can sometimes be repaired and reconstructed, but this involves a lengthy inspection process and detailed repair reports and receipts to be approved. The salvage inspection and repair process often ends up costing more than the vehicle was worth, to begin with.

Additionally, vehicles can also have back taxes associated with their VIN. In many states, if the prior owner lapsed the registration and failed to pay taxes on the vehicle, the new owner can be held 100% responsible for the back taxes before the vehicle can be titled and registered.

Tip #4: Match the VIN on the title to the VIN on the vehicle and bill of sale

If the vehicle title is the most important ownership document, the VIN is the most important vehicle identifier. The VIN of a vehicle decodes to show the year, make, model, factory location, manufacturer, engine specs, trim, etc. Every vehicle has a specific VIN and no two VINs are the same. A VIN is 17 characters long and at first glance may look like a normal set of numbers that matches what shows on your new car.

However, it can be easy to misread a VIN by just glancing at it a few times. Take the VIN on the title and make sure it matches up in all places where the VIN is shown on the vehicle and on all associated documents. In addition, write down the VIN and run a VIN check through the NMVTIS before buying to make sure it matches the vehicle and to look for historical defects.

If the VIN on your title doesn’t match the VIN on the vehicle, one, you don’t own the vehicle, and two, you’ve just lost your investment in the car because now it can’t be titled and the ownership is under investigation.

If you’re planning to buy a car online from a private seller, consider these four tips when it comes time to hand over your money. Title scams are far too common, and the best way to keep yourself safe is to know the best practices for legal vehicle title transfer. Remember, until you have a title in your hand, the vehicle you bought is nothing more than an expensive lawn ornament. If it’s your car, you deserve a title in your name. takes the hassle out of applying for a title for your vehicle. Our team of title experts can help prepare your paperwork for any title recovery method provided.

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Don’t let uncertainty hold you back. If it’s your car, you deserve a title.

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