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What is an Abandoned Vehicle and How to Get a Title For It?

Posted on in LawMarch 20, 2024

Abandoned vehicles pose a unique challenge for communities. These vehicles create safety risks, affect property values, and attract unwanted criminal activity. In most cases, answering these issues means removing the vehicle. However, doing so without going through the proper steps may expose you to legal risk.
abandoned vehicle

What is Considered an Abandoned Vehicle?

An abandoned vehicle is more than just a neglected car. There are accompanying factors such as location, condition, and the duration of abandonment it must meet in order to be considered lawfully abandoned.

The laws on abandoned cars on US private property widely change across states and within major cities. The most inclusive definition is any vehicle left on public or private property for more than 24 hours. Impounded vehicles may also be labeled abandoned if left unclaimed for a minimum period that varies between locations.

Some states, like Texas, impose requirements on the vehicle's functionality. Texas rules that abandoned cars must be older than five years old and inoperable. The state also requires a 48-hour abandonment period rather than the widely used 24-hour.

There are many minor differences between jurisdictions. We recommend contacting your local government for their exact specifications to avoid getting into a sticky situation.

Reasons Vehicles Are Abandoned

Vehicles are a required part of life for most people. In fact, bankruptcy claims typically do not take cars because they're necessary for the debtor to earn income. Choosing to abandon this type of asset, especially an abandoned vehicle, is a hard decision.

However, financial difficulties and significant mechanical failures can force people's hands into leaving an abandoned vehicle. The most common scenario is that owners cannot pay for necessary repairs, or the vehicle isn't worth as much as those repairs would cost.

Some owners don't have the spare money to pay for a tow, don't have roadside assistance, or don't have a spare tire, for example.

Getting stranded on a busy highway is extremely stressful, and some owners want to escape the situation as soon as possible. They may call a friend to pick them up and ignore the car for a few days.

How to Report an Abandoned Vehicle

We should get a huge misconception out of the way right from the start. You cannot simply wait a set period and then make a legal claim on an abandoned vehicle claim on an abandoned vehicle. A vehicle unlawfully left on your property or in public does not mean the original owner has lost their rights.

If you do not know the vehicle’s title holder, you must notify the police before making a lawful claim.

The Reporting Process of an Abandoned Car

The first step is to contact an entity with a right to remove the abandoned car. This will be a towing company, the state highway patrol, or the police.

Remember that citizens cannot call a tow company directly unless the vehicle is on their property. If they are the property owner, they must also notify the police along with basic vehicle information, including:

  • Registration plate number
  • Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
  • Vehicle's make and model
  • Associated Documents

After removing the vehicle, the towing service must submit a form to the DMV classifying it as abandoned. The DMV attempts to contact the original owner, allowing them a set period to reclaim the vehicle. If the vehicle has outstanding liens against it, the title may automatically be returned to the lien holder.

If the original title holder does not respond or does not want to reclaim their vehicle, the DMV formally lists it as 'abandoned'. Some states allow people to gain the authority to dispose of a motor vehicle, but this is a separate process.

How to Get a Title for an Abandoned Vehicle?

The rule for abandoned vehicles is NOT "finders keepers" There are more involved ways to get the title, but it may not be as cheap (or free) as you'd hoped.

Purchasing at Auction

Government vehicle auctions are held after the title holder forfeits ownership of the vehicle. This auction has a dual purpose: first, it is designed to recover towing, storage, and other costs incurred by the government in obtaining the abandoned vehicle; second, any proceeds in excess of those costs are returned to the former title holder. After covering those costs, the rest of the earnings are sent back to the now-former title holder.

If you did not purchase the abandoned car directly from the title holder, this is the process you must follow in most states. You must outbid others at the public auction, and there is no strict benefit to being the one who notified the government.

Purchasing from the Title Holder

The standard buying process probably isn't what you wanted, but this is the most surefire way to obtain the title while controlling the price. The only difference between buying an abandoned car and a used car is that you may not know the owner's identity.

Before tracking down the former owner, checking the vehicle's condition is best. It could be inoperable, or you may have mistaken its make and model for a similar-looking type. There is no need to waste effort on a vehicle you don't want.

After examining its condition, you'll need to contact the title holder. This task doesn't require extensive detective skills; you only need the vehicle identification number (VIN). This number is how vehicular histories are tracked worldwide, including crash history, repairs, and former owners.

You can ask the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to find and contact the owner of a car using the VIN. Normally, the DMV reaches out through the mail, so you may experience a lengthy waiting period for a response.

Once connected with thecar title holder, you can begin the purchase. If they ask about reclaiming the car, you'll want to remind them of the associated fees of that process, like storage and towing costs incurred by the DMV or police.

white abandoned vehicle

It cannot be stressed enough that just because a vehicle is abandoned or on your property does not mean you have ownership of the said vehicle. You cannot tamper with the vehicle, sell it without going through the proper steps, or have it illegally removed.

The steps outlined above are generally true in most states and jurisdictions in the US. However, some states only require a minimum of due diligence from the reporting party. This means proving they've contacted the original owner but received no response.

Unless you contact the abandoned vehicle title holder directly, reassigning ownership will involve the DMV. So, as a property owner, never assume you know the right way to handle the situation and contact the local authorities.

Failure to follow local laws can open you up to property damage claims and cause you to lose more than the vehicle is worth in the first place.

Claiming ownership of an abandoned vehicle title is a systematic process requiring help from local authorities. Before beginning, you must understand what constitutes an abandoned vehicle and the step-by-step procedures for proper reporting in your area.

Usually, your best bet is to purchase the vehicle directly from the title holder. You can find the owner of a car by running its VIN through the DMV. If this isn’t an option, it’s imperative that you act responsibly and ethically to avoid legal and financial consequences.

Remember that abandoned cars aren’t up for grabs. There are many reasons and tough situations that lead someone to discard their vehicle, and they deserve a chance to reclaim their asset.

Frequently Asked Questions

What if I buy a property with an abandoned vehicle on it?

Buying a house doesn’t include abandoned cars on the premises. Vehicle ownership is independent of property sales, like any furniture and appliances you see during a walkthrough.

Including vehicles in the deal is possible if the seller owns both assets. However, transferring ownership would still happen separately. Rather than searching through the DMV, asking the seller’s real estate agent to pass along a message would be faster.

We caution against removing abandoned cars until the buying process is complete. Only the property or vehicle owner may have it removed, and any outside tampering is a crime.

Do I have to pay to remove an abandoned vehicle?

Citizens must contact the police, highway patrol, or tow company to move an abandoned vehicle. However, you’re not financially responsible even if you make the request and it’s on your property.

Free car removal services can be found in different regions, especially in cases where the car is abandoned, illegally parked or has been involved in an accident.

However, the costs associated with towing, storage, and administrative processes are typically passed on to the vehicle's owner or title holder. These costs can be recouped through various means, such as charging fees for storage or administrative processes, or ultimately through auctioning the vehicle if the owner fails to claim it.

You’ll only take on costs if you want to purchase the vehicle. These fees include the police’s handling fees and assuming outstanding liens.

Why can’t I take an abandoned vehicle?

There are moral and legal reasons you can’t one-sidedly claim an abandoned vehicle.

The most important one is that not all “abandoned cars” are actually abandoned. Sometimes, people run out of gas and cannot retrieve the vehicle. The claims process is purposefully extended so the title holder has enough time to be notified and respond.

Additionally, several governmental processes rely on knowing who owns and regularly uses each vehicle. This knowledge allows highways to charge the right people and police to identify suspects accurately.

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