A car's certificate of title is a legal document that proves who owns it. If you’re buying or selling a vehicle, it’s critical to transfer the title correctly and legally.
The title transfer process is fairly similar across the US, with slight variations from state to state. If you want to learn more about vehicle titles, take a look at our guide to understanding the certificate of title.
What Is a Car Title Transfer?
A car title transfer is the process of changing ownership of a vehicle. Usually, it occurs at the conclusion of a used car transaction, after a buyer sends payment to a seller.
Title transfers can also occur between family members with no money involved or after a car’s owner dies and a close relative wants to transfer the title into their own name.
Once a seller signs over the car's title to the buyer, they no longer have anything to do with the car.
As the buyer in a private auto sale, you will become the legal owner of the vehicle as soon as the seller transfers the title to you.
Read our guide to buying a used car for more details on the overall transaction process.
What Documents Are Needed for a Vehicle Transfer?
There can be multiple documents involved in a vehicle sale, but the title is the most significant. Though paperwork requirements can vary from one state to another, here are the documents most commonly required:
- A completed title transfer application form
- Proof of car insurance from the buyer
- Proof of identity from buyer and seller (driver’s license or government-issued ID card)—note that PrivateAuto verifies buyers and sellers
- Bill of sale—done through the PrivateAuto mobile app with e-signatures
- The original title (or a duplicate title, if the original title has been lost)
- An odometer disclosure statement—required by some states
- A highway safety vehicle inspection—required by some states
Some states allow you to complete a title transfer online, while others require you to come in person to the DMV office.
How Long Can You Wait to Transfer a Title?
Each state sets its own limits for how soon a title transfer must be completed. Some states provide a 30-day or even 60-day window, while other states require you to transfer the title within 10 days of purchasing a vehicle. Usually, you should transfer the title of a car you just bought as soon as you can.
What is the Vehicle Transaction Process?
There are many steps to buying a used car, and transferring the title is one of them. Here are the phases of a private-party vehicle purchase.
- The buyer and seller agree on terms of the sale, especially the purchase price.
- Buyer and seller meet in person (or do a long-distance transaction via a trusted third party) for a test drive and to complete the transaction.
- The buyer can opt for a vehicle inspection (may be required in some states).
- Buyer and seller complete a bill of sale to memorialize the terms of the transaction, including purchase price, mileage, and other pertinent info. PrivateAuto automates the bill of sale process via mobile app prompts.
- The buyer pays the seller (send up to $1M instantly via PrivateAuto Pay with no transaction fee).
- The seller fills out the necessary information on the title and signs it over to the buyer. If the title lists two owners, both the second owner and the seller sign the title).
- The buyer also fills in the proper information on the certificate of title and signs it.
- The seller completes an odometer reading and the buyer verifies its accuracy.
- If the vehicle has an outstanding loan, lending institutions (listed as lien holders) will either need to be paid off or consent to the transaction.
- In most states, the seller will remove the license plates.
- The buyer gets liability insurance on the vehicle
- The buyer registers their new vehicle. This step requires proof of insurance, and the buyer will need to provide an identification document (driver’s license or ID card).
- The buyer gets a temporary tag to drive the vehicle and also applies for new license plates (in most states).
- The buyer pays the title transfer fee required for their state. If you’re transferring an out-of-state title, you’ll need to pay the fees appropriate for your state, not the state you’re buying from
- The buyer pays the vehicle sales tax on the purchase price of the vehicle as applicable. Taxes vary by state, with a few states not charging car sales tax at all. See our car sales tax guide for more details.
- The buyer completes a transfer of ownership form and submits it to their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or equivalent organization. They will also pay a title transfer fee, which varies by state.
In the next section, we’ll go over the steps in more detail.
Steps for Signing Over a Car Title
A car title transfer involves two primary phases.
- The buyer and seller meet in person and handle the test drive, inspection, payment, and signing of the title.
- The buyer completes the process at the DMV or equivalent organization.
Let’s get into the sub-processes in more detail.
Locate the Current Title or Apply for a Duplicate
The seller needs to have the vehicle’s Certificate of Title on hand. This is very important, especially for the new owner, who needs it to get insurance and register the car.
If you've misplaced or lost your vehicle's title, you'll need to get a replacement title before you can transfer ownership of the vehicle. It may sound silly to order a copy of a misplaced title when you’re planning on transferring the title anyway, but it's the law.
You can obtain a duplicate title through the DMV, either in-office or by mail. Applications are also available for download on most state DMV websites. Certified copies of titles are available upon request, and you can choose to either pick up your title in person or have it mailed to you. Please note that it may take longer to receive your title if you choose to mail it.
Sign a Bill of Sale
A bill of sale confirms transfer of ownership of and protects both the buyer and seller by providing a legal record of the transaction.
Since the bill of sale states the transaction date, it can offer legal protection to the seller, should they be accused of violations committed with the vehicle after said date. It also protects the buyer, should the seller attempt to cancel the transaction after payment has been made.
This document is also very important for tax purposes, especially if the car is considered a capital gain. Even if you took a loss on the sale, you should still keep a copy of this information just in case.
The bill of sale should include the following:
- Purchase date
- Legal name, mailing address and physical address of the seller and buyer
- The EXACT purchase price*
- Vehicle description (make, model, year, body style)
- Vehicle mileage (and/or odometer disclosure form)
- Vehicle identification number (VIN)
- A formal disclosure statement that the vehicle is free of any claims, liens, and offsets.
- Warranty information
- Signatures of the seller and buyer
- Additionally, many states require a signature from either a notary public or two witnesses.
*Sellers can face legal action if the sales price listed on the bill of sale is less than the amount paid. Putting a fraudulent price tag on the bill of sale is a common scam used by crooked sellers to evade steep tax rates.
Many states are cracking down on sales tax shortcuts by comparing vehicle sales prices to book values. It’s a good idea to keep any bank statements that prove the price is genuine, especially if you’re selling the vehicle for less than it’s worth.
PrivateAuto makes the bill of sale process easy. Buyer and seller each e-sign it in our mobile app at the appropriate point in the transaction process. To learn more about the bill of sale, check out our detailed bill of sale guide.
Payment is another essential part of the vehicle transaction process.
As a seller, do not hand over the title or complete the title transfer documentation until the buyer pays for the car. Once the title transfer is complete, the buyer is the legal owner of the car, regardless of whether you received payment or not.
Until PrivateAuto, no payment method existed for private vehicle transactions that met all of the following criteria:
- Good for any transaction amount
- Verified funds
Cash is risky; cashier’s checks require time to clear and are not foolproof; Venmo has transaction limits—each payment method has significant drawbacks.
PrivateAuto Pay solves all of these issues. It is a direct banking integration within the PrivateAuto app. At the appropriate step in the transaction process (after both parties have e-signed the bill of sale), the buyer will be prompted to transfer funds, and the seller will receive them instantaneously. Any amount up to $1 million. Any time of day. Any day of the year.
No more suitcases of cash; no more waiting for checks to clear. No more payment hassles.
If the seller has debt on the car, they need to settle the lien as soon as they get paid.
The lending institution should also give the seller a lien release document after the seller pays the lien. The seller should receive the title between 10-30 days after the debt is settled, depending on how the information is submitted.
Sign Over the Title
This is the crucial step that transfers ownership of the vehicle from the seller to the buyer. The buyer will need the certificate of title document for registration and insurance purposes.
The vehicle owner (seller) needs to bring a certificate of title. This can be a duplicate title or the original. The title must be filled out and signed by the seller and the buyer, each in their respective fields on the title form.
The buyer should check the vehicle identification number and compare it to the one listed on the vehicle title. Sometimes, VINs are falsified as part of some fraudulent scheme. Other times, the wrong VIN is listed on the title due to a clerical error that was never rectified.
Provide Proof of Insurance for the Vehicle, if Necessary
Some states require the owner to have active vehicle insurance coverage at the time of title transfer. In other states, the buyer will need to have an insurance policy ready to go for the newly-purchased vehicle. Before beginning a used car transaction, check with your state’s DMV website or call the local office to make sure all your bases are covered.
File a Notice of Release of Liability, if Necessary
Some states, like California, require that sellers file a Notice of Release of Liability (NRL) after a car is sold. In most states, however, this document is an optional precautionary measure.
An NRL protects the seller from being charged unfairly for traffic violations that happen after the vehicle has been sold. According to the California DMV website, an NRL is only needed when vehicle ownership has changed.
Complete DMV Title Transfer Paperwork
A Notice of Title Transfer (sometimes called a Motor Vehicle Transfer Notification or other names, depending on the state) is an important form that buyers must file with the DMV. In some states, the seller may also need to sign the form.
The following information is required on the title transfer form:
- Make, model, year, and body style of the vehicle
- Title document number
- License plate or decal plate number
- Date of transaction
- Legal names, addresses, telephone numbers, and email addresses of both parties
In some states, a certification portion is at the bottom of the transfer form; the former owner and the new owner must each sign and date.
This section will read something like this:
“I, the above-listed transferor, am notifying the Department of Motor Vehicles that I have transferred the above vehicle, which was legally owned by me and had a title issued in my name.
I understand the department will notate the transfer on the vehicle record, and under law, the vehicle will remain in my name until the new owner(s) transfers the title into their name.”
Don’t wait to submit the paperwork for your title to the DMV, since many states have costly penalties for filing a Title Transfer Notice after the deadline. Every state is different, with some allowing up to 60 days and others allowing buyers only 5 days to complete the title transfer process.
Depending on the state, the person selling the car may have to take the license plates off of it. The buyer will need to get new license plates.
Some states specify that the buyer keep the plates with the car. In other states, the law requires that the seller remove the license plates from the car and surrender them to the DMV. Still other states allow the seller to transfer the plates to another vehicle they own.
See our state-by-state license plate guide for the correct procedure in your state.
In states that require the seller to remove the plates, the buyer will need to get temporary plates or a vehicle transport permit from the DMV or county tax office to legally drive the car.
Vehicle transport permit laws differ from state to state. In Texas, drivers can either pay for a 72-hour or 144-hour permit, whereas in some other states, drivers are allowed 30 days before they have to get a permanent plate. License plate costs vary considerably by state, with some charging only $5 and others charging as much as $60.
Register The Car
New owners should head to the DMV as soon as possible to register the vehicle under their name. In addition to the Application for a Registration form, the DMV will request identification, proof of address, proof of insurance, and a bill of sale.
Tips For Filling Out a Title Transfer Notice
- Use black or blue ink and refrain from using correction tape or liquid on the form. Otherwise, you could risk nullifying the document.
- Sign your name on the title transfer as it appears on the original title. This is especially significant for those who’ve had their name changed.
- Ensure the lienholder has filed the paperwork on their end to relinquish rights to the vehicle before you transfer ownership.
Title Transfer by State
For complete instructions on the transfer of vehicle titles by state, click on your state below.