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In California, isn't a car dealership required to transfer the title of a trade in to their name?

San Diego, CA |
Filed under: Vehicle title

I traded in a vehicle to a dealership about a year ago as a down payment and got another. They told me they would take care all of the paper work. Recently the police came to my home and said they had impounded this trade in and that I was still the legal owner. Now Im responsible for the abandoned vehicle, storage fees, towing, etc. Wasn't the dealership supposed to transfer the title of my trade in into their name? Also, if I pay all these fees, can I just go pick up this car and keep it. Despite the fact that it has been paid off. That seems a little unscrupulous, I know. But my point is, as the legal owner I have to pay for any liability which may arise from the car but I can't take the car back? That just seems strange. Please help.

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Attorney answers 3


Disclaimer: The materials provided below are informational and should not be relied upon as legal advice.

When you sell a car to a buyer, the buyer will report the change of ownership to the DMV and you also have a similar form to turn in to DMV. When you are dealing with a licensed auto dealership, usually the dealer handles all paperwork. I am wondering why this dealer did not complete the DMV paperwork, why the dealer never resold the vehicle in this one year, and how the vehicle got impounded? If the vehicle was still in your name for another year, did you receive any correspondences from the DMV regarding registration, Smog check, etc.? You may need to make a police report, and also report the matters to the DMV. You should consult your own attorney to protect your legal rights.


Car dealers are usually pretty good about getting title into their name fast so they can resell a vehicle that comes in on trade. If you haven't talked to the dealer yet, that's the place to start and you should insist that they go get it and pay off anything being claimed by the police, impound yard, etc. You don't have the right to claim it's your vehicle since you clearly contracted to give it to the dealer. But if the dealer says they don't want it and you can have it if you pay the police, etc bill, then I don't see why you can't get it back in your possession, although you may have to get a replacement title issued in your name, assuming the original title is "long gone." Normally, each state has a special law that says how long someone has to put a vehicle title into their name after they acquire it but most of them also say there is no penalty (other than a higher title transfer fee) if a buyer doesn't comply with the deadline. There may be something wrong with your original deal that caused the dealer not to transfer the title, but the lapse of time makes that doubtful to me. Still, the only way to be sure about all of this (since laws are a little different from state to state) is for you to talk to a local Consumer Law attorney near you who deals with your specific kind of case. You can look for one here on Avvo under the Find a Lawyer tab. Or you can call your local attorney's Bar Association and ask for a referral to a Consumer Law attorney near you. I know Scott Kaufman is in Southern California and San Diego has several Lemon Law attorneys and they would know "car law" too. Or you can simply go to this web site page for a Free Online 50 State National List of Consumer Law Lawyers ( and find one near you (lawyers don’t pay to get listed here and most of them are members of the only national association for Consumer Law lawyers, But act quickly because for every legal right you have, there is only a limited amount of time to actually file a lawsuit in court or your rights expire (it's called the statute of limitations), so don't waste your time getting to a Consumer Law attorney and finding out what your rights are. If this answer was helpful, please give a “Vote Up” review below. Thanks for asking and good luck. Ron Burdge,

This answer is for general purposes only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Click the link to find a Consumer Law attorney near you.


As a slightly different take on this, it is not unusual for a dealer to use a "vehicle vessel transfer" document instead of an actual title, for these trade ins. That may allow them to transfer the car from you to another owner without the middle man (them) and maybe save some time and fees. Sounds like the dealer may have had some financial trouble since taking in your trade? If so, the folks who underwrite their inventory may have some financial interest in this vehicle. If you financed your purchase you may have claims for the money at issue against the dealer AND the finance company. More information is needed. It may be a plus to have a CA atty who handles dealer fraud review your paperwork to see where you are at. That includes paperwork from the time of sale and of course your recent notice. The sooner the better, as that car may be sold at auction very soon. My office handles these matters statewide and will review at no charge. Find us here:

Ronald Lee Burdge

Ronald Lee Burdge


Scott is the man when it comes to car sales fraud in southern California - so I highly recommend you give his office a call and set up a phone or in person conference to talk with him about this in more detail. It might cost a modest fee, but you'll know for sure what you can and can not do and you'll be talking with someone who can do it for you.

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