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Car Titles


Motor vehicle certificates of title are very important documents that should be treated like a deed to real estate. Titles have details about current and prior owners, any liens on the vehicle, and reports of any serious damage to the vehicle. A seller must sign the title over to the buyer in order to transfer ownership. If you are thinking about buying a car, take precautions. Make sure to:

  • inspect the title;
  • get a vehicle history report;
  • make sure the title is actually signed over to you; and
  • make sure you pay the fees on time to register the vehicle in your name.

When you look for a car, you will most likely take a look under the hood. Taking a test drive will help assess the condition of the vehicle. You may also check the brakes, shocks, tires and steering, plus test out the heat and air conditioning. But how will you check to see if the car has been stolen? What if the car was in a serious accident and has been re-built? What if it went through a flood? These are things that most people cannot find out just by inspecting the car. Even if the seller shows you a certificate of title, it might be fraudulent. What you really need is a National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) Vehicle History Report. This article calls the report a VHR.

From where does a VHR come?
VHRs come from state motor vehicle titling agencies, insurance carriers, and auto recycler/junk/salvage yards.

What does the VHR show?
A VHR will show:

  • the current and prior state of title data;
  • title issue date;
  • latest odometer data;
  • theft history data;
  • any brand (FLOOD, REBUILT, JUNK, SALVAGE, TOTAL LOSS) assigned to a vehicle and date applied; and
  • salvage history.

What do the terms on the VHR mean?
A VHR will show past labels such as "FLOOD" and "SALVAGE" that have been placed on the vehicle in other states that may have been fraudulently removed from titles when moving a vehicle from state to state.

How can I get a VHR and what's the cost?
VHRs are available online by entering the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and paying a fee. The fee varies from company to company, but the approved VHR companies can be found at

For what should a VHR user watch out?
If vehicle damage or theft was hidden or never reported, there is no way to track it. Also, some states do not yet take part in the national database. After deciding to buy a car, then what? You must do more than just get the keys and drive away:

  • Take possession of the certificate of title. The seller must sign the title to show the vehicle is being transferred to you;
  • Beware of any seller not willing to transfer the title to you until you pay off the amount owed on a loan;
  • Once you agree to buy the vehicle, you become the owner of the vehicle and the title must be put in your name. This is true even if the seller or a bank has a lien on the vehicle for a loan. The lien will be noted on the title, but the title should still be in your name; and
  • Always have at least the minimum level of auto insurance required by law to cover your liability as owner or driver of the vehicle.

Must anything else be done?
After taking possession of the vehicle and taking care of the title transfer, the transaction is still not complete. You must then register the vehicle in your name and pay the applicable fees to the County Treasurer within 30 days from the date of delivery of the vehicle to you.

What if I have the certificate of title but want to sell the car?
The best course of action is to follow the same process as a buyer, except from the other side of the transaction. Getting the title OUT of your name and into the other party's name is in your interest. Also, when you sell the vehicle, be sure to KEEP your license plates. As well as avoiding liability for a vehicle you no longer own, you may be eligible for a partial refund of what you paid to your county treasurer for a full year of vehicle registration. After you take care of all these details, happy trails to you!

Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 

To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:

  • Call 800-532-1275.
  • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161.
  • Apply online at
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.
Last Review and Update: Mar 30, 2020
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