Thinking of buying a used car? Most sellers are upstanding citizens, and many second-hand car deals go on without a hitch. But there is always a slight risk that a seller is about to deceive you and have you paying more than the car’s true worth.
Getting stuck with a problematic car you thought was clean can leave you bewildered and poorer. But you can protect yourself from fraud by performing a title check to see the car’s true history.
What Is a Title?
The vehicle title is a document issued by a state agency to an individual to show that they legally own the car. Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) maintain the ownership records in a database, allowing the ownership authenticity to be confirmed.
On paper, it is a single-sheet certificate with two printed sides. It can include the following information:
- Vehicle history (may be blank or branded as salvage, rebuilt, etc.);
- Registered owner’s name and address;
- Prior title state;
- VIN (Vehicle Identification Number);
- Year, make, model, and body type;
- Use (private or commercial);
- License plate number;
- The title number;
- Issue date and previous issue date;
- Odometer reading on the title issue date;
- Lien release (if interest in the vehicle has been released, when, and by whom);
- Signatures of a state official;
- Assignment of the section (where you and the seller sign to acknowledge the transfer).
During the purchase, you’re encouraged to draw up a purchase agreement (bill of sale) detailing the terms of the sale. For instance, the purchase agreement will state something along the lines that you agree to purchase the car as it is.
But you can’t just present the bill of sale to the DMV for them to change the ownership to you. The current owner must also sign over the title on the document itself.
Afterward, you present this document at the local DMV and the bill of sale if requested. They will then alter the records to reflect you as the current owner, completing the legal transfer process.
One of the biggest red flags to look out for is a seller who is hesitant to present the physical copy for inspection. It’s an early indication that the document may have an issue.
However, note that some states, such as California, have e-titles. In this case, the owner should provide access to the e-version.
Types of Titles
The “Vehicle History” entry is used to differentiate various kinds of car titles. “Clean” is the most common designation, but there are five main adjectives used to qualify a car title:
Salvage, lemon, and rebuilt indicate a past history of manufacturing defects, accidents, or damages.
A vehicle with this category signifies that no major issues have ever been reported to the DMV and made it to the records. “Reported” is the word to be careful about. Some accidents or damages may go unreported, particularly when the owner doesn’t file an insurance claim.
You should still perform a thorough mechanical inspection to ascertain that the designation is correct. For instance, a car with a clean title may have hidden undercarriage damage, but you may never know it from the photos alone if you’re purchasing a car without inspecting it.
Financed cars may have a lien attached to them and the title will not be clear. Be careful! Even if the owner has evidence to show that they fully paid off the car, don’t buy it until they complete the lien release process and the DMV lists them as the sole owner. Additionally, confirm that there are no outstanding loans or unpaid fees on the car.
The “Salvage” designation means that the insurance company chose to salvage the vehicle. This entails reimbursing the owner and reselling the salvaged car. That said, salvaged cars may have not incurred significant damage. They can be good deals, but you should still research the extent of the damage and repair costs.
States have different lemon laws. In most places, the accepted definition is any car with a prior history of production defects that affect its usability, value, or safety. In California, where the Lemon Law is more elaborate, it is any car where the manufacturer or dealer has not fixed the problem after four or more attempts. Be careful with cars labeled as lemon – it is not advised to invest in such vehicles.
Rebuilt cars were previously damaged and salvaged. But after repairs and an official inspection, they were declared roadworthy again.
Modern cars may be sufficiently restored, but there is always a danger of hidden issues that were not detected. Plus, restored cars may not match the reliability of an accident-free car. For instance, even if the only fix was a paint job, it may not last as long as the original factory finish.
You should also watch out for rebuilt cars being priced as clean cars. Ideally, they should go for up to 30% less than the asking price of clean title cars. It’s in your best interest to get a deal even if the repairs were above board. The branded title leaves a bad mark. Your insurance premiums may be higher, and you may struggle to dispose of the car later.
Some cars may be labeled as “For Export Only.” The vehicle may have been involved in an accident and declared as a total loss. In the past, there were no issues purchasing and repairing them. But new laws are increasingly making it difficult to register them again in some states.
Additional designations you may come across during your search include:
- Junk car – Vehicles labeled as a total loss and can’t be repaired, making them only good for parts;
- Odometer rollback – There has been an illegal alteration of the mileage;
- Dismantled – The car is beyond repair.
Why Do You Need to Check the Title?
Your biggest motivation for performing a title lookup is in order to avoid problematic cars and potentially save your money, time, and future sanity. A vehicle title check may reveal undisclosed issues such as salvage, rebuilt, or odometer rollbacks.
Some details can help with the negotiation. For instance, if you find out that the car was rebuilt, but the price is at par with clean cars, you can ask for a discount.
Title status checks can weed out scams if the deal is too good or if the sale seems rushed, like in a distressed sale. Checks are also handy for sight-unseen and salvage auction cars.
Not all sellers can provide a full historical account of the car, for instance, if you’re buying from a car lot. A car title search can provide a look-back period starting at the point at which the car left the production line.
Where to Find the Title Number?
Car titles will have an 8-digit identification number that serves as a reference for the actual document. It’s useful when obtaining a new title for a vehicle or attaching liens to cars. Other than that, it does not offer much information about the vehicle since it is not fixed like the VIN.
When a car is bought by someone new, a unique number is assigned to it. If ownership changes in the future, this number will be updated accordingly.
So, where can you find the number? Check for the following places:
- On the document itself: The number may be printed on this document or registration card. Look for an 8-digit number near the VIN at the top of the document.
- On the registration renewal invitation: If you recently received a notice from the DMV about renewing your registration, the number will be there.
If you can’t find it in any of the places, you can call or visit your local DMV. They may have a duplicate. Also, check if they provide an e-copy.
Title vs VIN Number
With a title number, you can learn a limited amount of information as contained in the DMV records, for instance, the legal owner, assigned plates, and if there are any active liens on the title.
The number will change after ownership changes and in other situations, including after ordering a duplicate, registering the car in a different state, paying off the vehicle, or refinancing it. Its mutable nature makes it unsuitable for tracking the car throughout its history.
On the other hand, the VIN by itself stores the vehicle’s spec details, and if you know what the digits mean, you can know the car’s make, model, year, trim, original color, where it was manufactured, etc.
By ordering a history check, you can discover more about any recalls, maintenance history, accidents, and past registration records.
The vehicle identification number is immutable, no matter how often a vehicle changes hands. Tampering with it is considered a criminal offense.
All in all, the VIN provides insight into the car’s specs and past history, and the number can only provide current ownership details.
How to Check the Status of a Car Title?
Our title lookup by VIN tool compiles data from reliable databases belonging to repair facilities, DMVs, auction houses, inspection facilities, law enforcement, and other sources, giving you all the info you need in one place. Give it a try in 4 simple steps:
- Go to the VIN search at the top of this page.
- Enter the car’s VIN number in the respective field to begin the verification process.
- Hit the "Check VIN" button.
- You'll have a detailed report on the vehicle to go. All it takes is a few minutes to review it.
With unscrupulous sellers waiting to inflate a car’s value to sell it for more than its worth, a VIN check can help you save money and avoid vehicles with troubled pasts. Enter the car’s VIN into the title lookup tool, and wait as we cross-check the VIN against hundreds of external databases.
Free Title Check by VIN
FAXVIN provides a free VIN lookup report after inputting the VIN number into our title checker tool and clicking “Next.” This free tool decrypts the VIN and displays its associated make, model, year of manufacture, style, engine type, color, & age.
The free report doesn’t provide details about the vehicle's past, such as past accidents, service history, or ownership changes. For a comprehensive record, consider purchasing a paid report for further information.
Is the free check worth it? Taking advantage of free unlimited reports is a great way to find the information you need to compare different options. Once you have narrowed down your choices, you can order full reports for the vehicles that interest you.
FAXVIN shows categories in the paid report that may have information, such as ownership records, odometer readings, accidents, etc. If these data points are important to you, you can decide to order the full report.
DMV Title Check
The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) is a system established by the Department of Justice to enhance consumer protection. This database stores information from all states and provides a secure platform for auto titling.
FAXVIN incorporates NMVTIS reports to provide you with an informative vehicle title search history. It includes details about its past possession in a junkyard or salvage yard and if it was ever declared as a ‘total loss’ by an insurance company or reported as stolen.
During your initial engagement with the seller, ask for the car’s title and VIN that you can use to perform your background due diligence. When you meet in person, take time to inspect the car thoroughly with the help of a mechanic. Performing all the steps diligently saves you from costly surprises down the line.
Quick Facts About Car Titles
- Buyers must have a signed copy of the document to register a vehicle.
- 932,329 vehicles were reported as stolen in the US in 2021.
- A car title number can change over the car’s history as ownership changes from one party to another and across state lines.
- Your state’s motor vehicle agency website can help you perform a car title search at a fee.
- If you lose the document before the transfer, request the seller to order a replacement, and you should both sign the assigned section again.
- Your state motor vehicle agency can offer a duplicate if you lose the document or if it gets damaged.
- There are various services you can now access from the DMV’s online website, from requesting a new document to performing a title search.