What Documents Do You Need When Buying a Car from a Private Seller?

Last Updated on February 16, 2024

Buying a car from a private seller is easy. However, you need certain paperwork.

To buy a car from a private seller, you typically need the title and a bill of sale. However, some states also require emissions certificates and safety inspection documents. Typically, a dealership handles this paperwork for you. However, you are responsible for this paperwork when buying or selling privately.

What documents do you need when buying a car from a private seller? What should you bring when making a private car sale? Keep reading to discover the paperwork you may need to bring.

What Documents Do I Need?

Document requirements vary between states. Generally, however, you need the following documents when buying a car from a private seller:

  • The title of the vehicle
  • A bill of sale

In some states, you require an emissions certificate or smog certificate. In California, for example, you need a smog certificate if the vehicle is more than eight years old. Other states require safety inspection certificates to verify the car has met certain standards.

During the transaction, both the buyer and seller will complete the transfer section of the vehicle’s title. They will add their signatures and the purchase price. Some title transfer sections also require an odometer disclosure statement (say, if the vehicle is newer than ten years old).

If the seller does not have the vehicle title, or if the title is missing, then the seller can obtain a new title by contacting the DMV. For example, if you have lost your title in California, you can complete Form REG 227 to apply for a duplicate or paperless title.

Paperwork Required to Register Vehicle at DMV

Once you have completed the title transfer document and you have the required documents, you (as the buyer) must bring all required paperwork to the DMV to complete the registration process.

In most states, the DMV will require the following paperwork to complete the registration process:

  • The vehicle’s title and bill of sale (as completed above)
  • A vehicle safety inspection certificate (if necessary)
  • The smog certificate or emissions certificate (if necessary)
  • A completed application for title or registration form
  • Payment for various fees, including a registration fee and other required fees (typically $60 to $200 total)

Most states require buyers to bring the paperwork to the DMV within ten days of purchase.

In California, for example, you must bring all of the above paperwork to the DMV within ten days of purchasing your vehicle.

Documentation Requirements When Registering an Out-of-State Vehicle

If you bought a vehicle outside of the state, then you may need additional documentation when registering the vehicle within the state.

Documentation required when registering an out-of-state vehicle in your current state may include:

  • Out-of-state registration documents
  • Current license plates
  • A completed statement of facts or verification of vehicle document

These documents may even be required if you bought an out-of-state vehicle within your state. If the seller recently arrived in your state, for example, and wanted to sell a vehicle, then you may need to complete the out-of-state documentation requirements regardless.

What Is a Vehicle Title?

The vehicle title is one of two main pieces of documentation needed to sell a vehicle in any state (along with a bill of sale).

The vehicle’s title is the document proving ownership of the vehicle.

When buying a car, it’s important to verify that the title is original and free of liens. The title should list the vehicle identification number (VIN). It should also show whether the title is branded as anything but clean.

Some states will not accept a damaged title. If the title document is damaged, torn, or stained, then you may be unable to register your vehicle. Ask the seller to obtain a new vehicle title to ensure a smooth sale process.

If the vehicle title has multiple names, then you need the signature of each individual before selling the vehicle.

What Is a Bill of Sale?

Most states do not technically require a bill of sale to transfer ownership of the vehicle. However, the bill of sale verifies the transaction took place, and it’s important to have this documentation when completing a private sale.

The California DMV, for example, does not require a bill of sale to transfer ownership. However, the bill of sale can help you prove ownership was transferred while also verifying the price you paid for the vehicle.

You can find free motor vehicle bill of sale forms and templates online. The bill of sale functions like a receipt: it verifies the transaction took place between the buyer and the seller at a specific date and a specific price.

Some states do require a bill of sale when transferring ownership. Check your state’s requirements before completing a private vehicle sale.

Insurance Requirements When Buying a New Vehicle

Shop around for car insurance before buying a new car. You’ll need valid car insurance coverage to legally drive your new vehicle. Although a dealership will verify insurance coverage, a private seller will not. It’s up to you to ensure you have adequate coverage.

You must carry minimum liability insurance in your state to legally drive away in your new vehicle. Many drivers also opt for full coverage car insurance, which includes collision and comprehensive coverage and provides extra protection for your vehicle.

If you already own a vehicle and have insurance, then your insurance may extend to cover new vehicles over a short period. Your current insurance policy could protect new cars for up to 30 days before you need to notify your insurer. If not, you could buy a temporary policy or drive-away insurance to cover you for this short time period.

Contact your insurer to ask about insurance requirements when buying a new vehicle from a private seller.

Other Tips for Buying a Car from a Private Seller

Car buying rules vary from state to state. Check your state’s requirements before the sale, and follow these tips:

  • Look up paperwork requirements before you make the transfer. Some states require vehicle safety inspection certificates, emissions certificates, and other forms during the transfer.
  • Check the VIN. The vehicle identification number can give you crucial insight into the vehicle and its history. You should also check the VIN to ensure it matches the VIN on the title.
  • Look up the fair market value of the vehicle using Kelley Blue Book.
  • Check the registration of the vehicle yourself to make sure it matches the title and the ID of the seller.
  • Bring a friend for safety and complete the transaction in a well-lit public place.
  • Make sure the seller has the title and keys in hand during the sale. Avoid electronically sending money to a seller until you have the title and keys.
  • Examine the vehicle and take it for a test drive before buying it. Or, hire a mechanic to perform an inspection on the vehicle (or drive it to a mechanic during the test drive).

Final Word on Buying a Car from a Private Seller

When buying a vehicle, you need two main pieces of documentation: the vehicle’s title and a bill of sale.

The seller signs the title to you, you record the transaction in the bill of sale, and you complete the purchase by registering the vehicle in your name at the DMV. Some states require the title to be notarized, while others do not.

Verifying documentation requirements before you make the sale can ensure a smooth sale process when buying a used vehicle from a private seller.

James Shaffer
James Shaffer James Shaffer is a writer for InsurancePanda.com and a well-seasoned auto insurance industry veteran. He has a deep knowledge of insurance rules and regulations and is passionate about helping drivers save money on auto insurance. He is responsible for researching and writing about anything auto insurance-related. He holds a bachelor's degree from Bentley University and his work has been quoted by NBC News, CNN, and The Washington Post.
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