Stumbled on a great barn motorcycle? Or maybe you’re buying a used motorcycle and the seller lost the title? Buying a motorcycle without a title can be a great idea – or a huge and costly mistake. Before proceeding, you’ll need to do your homework on the bike itself and your state laws. In some cases, registering a bike without a title will be impossible, especially for Californians buying a motorcycle out of state.
Here’s why a no title motorcycle isn’t always a deal breaker – and what you need to do to make sure you’re able to get a title and register your new bike in your name.
Risks of Buying a Motorcycle with No Title
When someone is selling a motorcycle with no title, there may be many valid reasons the title is absent. The seller may have lost the title, it may have been lost in a fire or natural disaster, or the bike simply may have never been issued a title because it predates the state’s title requirements.
However, a no title motorcycle is always a red flag because getting a duplicate title is an easy process in every state.
Someone selling a motorcycle with no title who hasn’t requested a duplicate title before selling may have valid reasons – but it can be a sign the bike is stolen, isn’t paid off, or has serious damage that’s being hidden.
Before proceeding with the sale, you absolutely should do your due diligence to make sure neither one is true.
Always do a motorcycle VIN check!
A VIN check can turn up hidden liens on the bike that need to be paid before it can be titled and registered. A stolen motorcycle VIN check can also make sure the bike isn’t stolen or uncover other title problems.
How to Check if a Motorcycle Is Stolen
Never buy a no title motorcycle without doing a VIN check! A motorcycle with no title is a red flag that the bike was stolen, especially if there are other warnings like damage to the ignition or a seller that discourages you from running a check.
Motorcycle theft is on the rise with over 53,000 stolen motorcycles reported in 2020 alone according to NICB. Top states for theft include California, Texas, and Florida. Buying a stolen bike comes with serious consequences including losing your money and the bike. You can even be charged with buying stolen property.
Here’s how to check if a bike is stolen before you buy.
- Use the NICB VINCheck
- This tool tells you if they bike has a record of an insurance theft claim, was not recovered, or has been reported as salvage. It only checks participating NICB member insurance companies though.
- Check NMVTIS
- This federal database combines data from DMVs in 49 states and DC. You can search vehicle title data to see historical theft data, most recent odometer readings, whether the vehicle is salvaged or flooded, and more. Some states submit motorcycle information too. The vehicle history report links to the current state’s full vehicle title record.
- Call your insurance company
- Most insurance companies will run a free VIN check on a car or bike you’re considering purchasing. They will do a VIN inspection through their own database to look for issues or reports the bike was stolen.
- Have the DMV or highway patrol run a VIN check
- There is usually a fee, but your local DMV or highway patrol may perform a VIN inspection. If possible, it’s best to have the seller meet you at the DMV with the bike if it’s operational so the VIN can be inspected in person. You may also be able to bring in the VIN number itself to run, although you should still be on guard for other signs that the VIN has been cloned or tampered with.
Beware of VIN Cloning
One of the most sophisticated scams is called VIN cloning. Most stolen motorcycles end up in chop shops and used for parts, or less sophisticated thieves will simply try to pass them off to unsuspecting buyers with no title and a story about how the title was lost. VIN cloning is harder to spot.
VIN cloning is a process through which thieves take the VIN from a similar model from a dealership or parking lot and make counterfeit VIN tags that are installed on the stolen vehicle.
An even less risky but more involved process for motorcycles involves using a legitimate bike frame and rebuilding the motorcycle with stolen parts.
Make sure you check the VIN number on the bike in multiple places for any signs of tampering or mismatched VIN numbers!
Warning Signs a Bike Is Stolen
- To avoid buying a stolen motorcycle with no title, watch for these red flags.
- The seller can’t provide basic information about the motorcycle or its history
- The bike has a price that is too good to be true
- The seller discourages you from running a VIN check on the bike
- There is suspicious damage to the bike particularly the ignition switch, the ignition cylinder, and steering lock
Watch for Hidden Liens on a Motorcycle with no Title
Theft isn’t the only concern with a no title motorcycle: it may also have liens that haven’t been paid. The seller may not have a title because they aren’t actually the owner yet – the financing company owns it. The bike could even have other hidden liens like mechanic’s liens or liens if the bike was used as collateral for a loan.
Until the lien is paid, the motorcycle can’t be transferred to a new owner. If you buy a motorcycle with a lien, you will need to pay off the lien to get the title and register the car. You can also face repossession of the bike by the lienholder.
This is a risky prospect. If you proceed with the sale before the lien is paid, the bike can be repossessed. You will also need to contact the lienholder because simply paying the lien may not be good enough. Without a process in place, the bike’s title may be sent to the purchaser, aka the seller, not you. Not all lienholders have a process to send the title to a new owner when a lien is paid off.
Mechanic’s liens must also be paid before the bike is sold, but in this case, the owner should have the title or be able to get a duplicate title.
A motorcycle VIN check can turn up liens on the bike so you can make an informed decision.
How to Register a Motorcycle Without a Title
Now that you understand the risks, what to look for, and why it’s crucial to run a VIN check when buying a used motorcycle, are you planning to proceed with buying a no title bike? Be prepared for extra steps and paperwork.
To register your new bike, you’ll generally need to get a new title issued first.
Best Option: Apply for a Replacement or Duplicate Title
The best way to get a title and register the bike is to ask the seller to request a replacement title. In many states, the registered owner can apply for a replacement title and have information like the owner changed at the same time. The titled owner usually needs to provide a signed, notarized application for a replacement title.
Some states like Florida let you apply for a duplicate title and transfer the title in a single transaction.
How to Get a Title for a Motorcycle Without Title
The process and requirements vary significantly by state. Make sure you check with your DMV to find out how to get a title for a motorcycle without a title and register it in your name before buying a bike without a title. In some states, you may have no way to legally register and title the car. California motorcycle registration is notoriously difficult for out-of-state bikes even with a title!
Here’s a general process of how to get a title for a motorcycle and register it. Note that this process isn’t available in some states.
At the very least, almost every state will require at least a bill of sale signed by the legal owner of the motorcycle. To be safe, the bill of sale should be notarized. It’s important to have a federal odometer statement included on the bill of sale, a requirement in many states to get a new title and register the bike.
With the signed bill of sale, you will also need to have the motorcycle VIN verified by the DMV or state patrol. In some states, the highway or state patrol can verify the VIN and sign DMV paperwork to verify the motorcycle is not stolen. You can then take your completed paperwork to the DMV or title office to have a new title issued and register the bike.
In some states, the seller must go with you to the DMV. After a VIN inspection, you may need to submit a lost title form and pay the fee to have a replacement title issued with your name and mailed to you.
Other states require a notarized letter from the registered owner or an abandoned vehicle salvage claim before you can get a title.
Bonded Titles for Motorcycles
Some states have what’s known as a “bonded title.” A bonded title lets you establish ownership of a motorcycle without a title. The process of getting a bonded motorcycle title usually requires filling out paperwork explaining how you came into possession of the bike with supporting evidence like the bill of sale. You must also show the bike has not been reported stolen with a VIN certificate or other statement submitted with the paperwork.
You must get a surety bond from a bond company to secure the bonded title from the DMV. The amount of the bond needed will depend on the bike’s value. Along with fees for the forms and the title, you will need to pay the cost of the bond which usually starts at $100-150.
A bonded title is issued for a period of time, usually three to five years. If there are no other claims of ownership made during that time, you can get a clear motorcycle title.
Not all states offer bonded titles such as Ohio. In these states, you may be able to get a court-ordered title instead.
Getting Title for Old Motorcycle Barn Finds & Vintage Bikes
What happens if you’re buying a barn motorcycle or a vintage bike that has never had a title? The process can be very different.
In most cases, if the motorcycle has never had a title, the VIN check comes back clean, and you have a signed bill of sale, you can complete a new title application to get a new title for the bike. In some states, a vintage motorcycle may need a “registration receipt” to transfer ownership.
Note that not all states allow you to get a title for a vintage bike with a bill of sale and VIN verification alone, even if the bike has never had a title. Make sure you check your state laws!
A bonded title is an excellent option for getting a motorcycle title but check the requirements in your state first. In Florida, for instance, you can only qualify for a bonded title if you bought the bike from the legal owner, the title was lost, and the prior owner is unreachable with proof you tried to contact them.
The typical barn find is not eligible for a bonded title because the seller is not the legal owner, but the legal owner is long gone or unknown. They may have died, abandoned the bike, or informally sold or given the bike away to the seller who never titled it.
If you have no options to title the bike in your state, you can try getting a motorcycle title in a different state like Vermont which lets you transfer ownership of vintage motorcycles with a bill of sale. They do not require that the prior legal owner be named on the bill of sale. Vermont does not issue titles for older motorcycles, only a registration, but it can be used to transfer title to your state.
As you can see, buying a motorcycle without title is a risky prospect, especially if you are buying from someone who is not the legal owner on the registration or title. Make sure you do your homework on the requirements in your state to transfer title and always do a VIN check to verify the bike is not stolen and doesn’t have outstanding liens!