How to Claim Ownership of an Abandoned Vehicle

by Fraser Sherman

A vehicle abandoned on public or private property will eventually be removed and then sold. The exact rules on how to deal with abandoned vehicles vary state to state, and sometimes between cities and counties. You probably won't be able to just claim the vehicle even if it's abandoned on your property.

Abandonment Defined

Depending on state and local law, a vehicle may qualify as abandoned if the owner leaves it

•On the shoulder of a public highway.

•On public property such as a city parking lot.

•With a dealer, repair shop or wrecking service and doesn't pick it up within a certain amount of time.

•On private property without the property owner's consent.

•Towed and impounded by the towing company for five days.

Time may have to pass before the vehicle is truly abandoned. In Virginia, for example, it has to sit on public or private property at least 48 hours, but it's instantly abandoned if left on the shoulder of the highway. Mississippi considers the vehicle abandoned if it sits for five days on public property, including highways, and 40 days at a repair shop.

Find the Owner

Even if the owner apparently doesn't want the car any more, whoever takes possession must make a good-faith effort to confirm that. In Mississippi, for example, if a vehicle is brought in for repairs, then left, the repair shop can sell it. If the shop goes that route, however, it must find the owner's address through state government resources and notify the owner within 10 days. If the car isn't registered in-state, the shop must publish a notice in its local paper. In Virginia, whoever is in possession of the car must contact the state where the car is registered and try to locate the owner.

In Connecticut, abandoned vehicles are held by a government agency, such as the police. The agency must try to notify the owner within 48 hours that the car can be put up for sale after 15 or 45 days, depending on the car's value.

Claiming the Car

Even after the waiting period expires, you might not be able to take title to the car. Virginia, for example, allows an individual to take title, but only to make it simpler for her to sell or dispose of the car. You submit your application for a title certificate to the DMV, along with a vehicle removal certificate, proof that you've tried to find the owner, and the usual fees and paperwork for taking title to a car. You can then auction it off.

In Washington State, you don't take title even if the car is abandoned on your property. The most you can do is have it towed away.

The Auction Option

If the car is of low value or in bad condition, state law might require authorities to dispose of it for scrap. Connecticut allows police to take title to abandoned vehicles if they're worth $500 or less. This makes it easier to sell or dispose of them.

If the car does go up for sale — by the towing company, an auto-repair shop, the police or someone else — you'll have to bid and win to take title. The auction will be announced ahead of time. If you win, follow state procedure for taking title.

Warnings

Learn the auction rules before you bid. In Denver, for example, sales are cash only. Cars are sold as is, and buying the car doesn't guarantee the Department of Motor Vehicles will approve your title.

About the Author

A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.