What’s in a name, you say?






A rose by any other name, etc., is one thing, but a title in other names is a different story.


In our old-car fascination, we tend to focus on the condition of the car we are buying rather than the clearness of the title.


Whenever old-car people get together to tell horror stories about restoring their fine old LaSalle or Cadillac, the most horrifying story experiences relate to chrome plating, but a close second is getting a clear title to enable you to actually own and drive your new pride and joy.


Just a minor inconvenience and expense, you say? Guess again…this can end up being major problems for anything other than a parts car. Going back to my earlier daysworking as an auto theft investigator, I can still remember many incidents of taking cars away from innocent victims and how much they lost in these bad deals.


One good example was a 1947 convertible that was in reasonably good shape and fairly complete. The car was part of an estate that the former owner’s brother sold to an anxious buyer for the very reasonable price of $10,000. He was told that the title couldn’t be found at this time, but he would apply for a duplicate title, or at the very worst, get a bonded title.


The buyer was anxious to get to work on the restoration and didn’t worry about the title, figuring it would be forthcoming. By the time the restoration was completed about $25,000 (and a year and a half) later, he went to the former owner’s brother to get help with the title, only to find out that the brother had also passed away. The only option left was to apply for a bonded title.


As the car was now restored, the value had increased, and after appraisal, it required a $55,000 bond. The total cost of getting the bonded title was almost $2,500. A title was finally obtained, license plates were acquired and the glorious day came for driving and enjoying the car.


About three months later, the you-know-what hit the fan. The original owner’s son (who had been overseas in the military) showed up with a valid title signed over to him by his father. The car was tied up in court action for quite a while and it would take a large book to detail all that went on from that point.


The bottom line was that between lawyer fees, court costs, settlement with the bonding company and satisfying the legal owner, the buyer’s good deal cost him an additional $22,000. By the time the buyer got a good, clean, usable title, he had about $82,000 invested in a car with an appraised value of $45,000. This is only one of dozens of similar stories.


One of our own Club members bought a ’41 Cadillac that had gone through an auction and a couple of dealers. The title he got after a couple of months turned out to be invalid, and it took another four months and quite a few headaches and scares to finally end up with a clear title to let him drive the car legally.


The obvious question is, how you can prevent these kinds of problems? It is not really that hard, but it will take a little effort on your part.


The first thing will be to personally verify the VIN on the car you are buying and check it against the title. Oh yes, look at the actual title before you put money out. If the seller is legitimate, he will be willing to give you a photocopy of the title for you to check out. Cars at one time were titled under both frame number and/or engine number.


Make sure the title shows the frame number and then clear both numbers. Somewhere in the history of the car, two cars may have been married to make one car and one of the cars may not have been legitimate. Above all, verify the identity of the person from which you are buying.


Now go to a police department, sheriff’s department or state police office and have their auto theft section run a clearance for you. If everything checks out, and the person you are buying the car from is the same as the name on the title, you are generally in good shape. Still, be sure to get a bill of sale that guarantees the car to be free from all liens and encumbrances.


If the car is part of an estate, make sure you get all of the supporting documents (i.e. death certificate, any powers of attorney and an affidavit from the person selling the car that he has the authority to sell you the car). If a bonded title is required, have the seller get the bond in their name before selling it to you. The purchaser of the bond is the person responsible in case of forfeit.


If anything doesn’t seem right, get an attorney to draw up a buyer’s and seller’s contract that will protect you. If the seller is not willing to go to all of the trouble, then you better shy away or plan to use the car for parts and scrap the rest. He may even offer to reduce the price rather than go through the hassle you are asking. This could be the most costly discount you ever got.


Even the most astute buyer may get stung occasionally, but it sure is nice to have the odds in your favor. If the deck has to be stacked, at least get them stacked in your favor. Or, if you are wealthy enough that you can afford these kinds of mistakes, let me know. I ought to be able to find something to sell you.


See ya later,