How to Tell If You Have a Clean Title on a Car

by Scott Krohn
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In addition to being a legal document showing ownership of the car, the certificate of title may display other important details. Titles include information on lien holders, and may contain designations that describe events in which the vehicle suffered major damage. States maintain easily-accessible resources that can confirm that a title is clean, indicate any red flags, or reveal that a certificate has been forged.

Clean Title Basics

A clean certificate of title represents that the vehicle is fully paid and owned by the seller, listed by name on the document. A clean title also indicates that the vehicle has not been in a major accident, has not been written off by an insurer, and has not ever been stolen. If you are purchasing a used vehicle, having an accurate grasp of these details can help to make an informed decision. As a seller, having this information can facilitate a smooth sale. To check for a clean title, you can turn to three primary resources.

The National Motor Vehicle Title information System

Access the National Motor Vehicle Title information System through a state’s department of motor vehicles website, or through affiliate sites registered with NMVTIS. This service focuses on the reporting of information from five indicators -- the state and most recent title date, brand history, odometer readings, total loss reports, and salvage designations. With only five categories, the information on these reports is narrow compared to other services, but it offers a low cost option to search a vehicle’s history. Reports can be purchased for $4.95 from affiliates as of this publication.

CARFAX and AutoCheck

CARFAX and Autocheck reports offer all the information that NMVTIS does, but augment that base with numerous additional search categories. These include liens on the vehicle, returns based on Lemon Law rulings, and vehicle maintenance records. The authenticity of a physical certificate of title also can be confirmed by comparing the information on the document to the disclosures in the vehicle history reports provided by both services. A single CARFAX report costs $39.99, while AutoCheck charges $19.99 for a single title search.

Doing a Clean Title Search as a Seller

Getting a vehicle history report on a car being sold can provide value as well by updating vehicle information during the current period of ownership. If the title is branded with accident information, you may be able to detail the measures that were taken to repair the car with prospective buyers, such as paying for factory authorized work and using OEM replacement parts. If the history shows a clean title, you can use the report as a selling tool to assure potential buyers that there are no hidden problems.

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