I wrote a piece a while back about selling cars and how you need to make sure the buyer retitles the car in his or her name. Several people chimed in saying California has an online process where you tell the state you sold your car so that takes care of it. WRONG!
Buying and selling cars is often fraught with peril when individuals are on both sides of the sale. This is because most people buy or sell cars so seldomly they do not take all the steps necessary to protect themselves. I pointed out that a seller really needs to make sure that the buyer retitles the car in his or her name. This, because I have spoken with many people who sold cars and the buyers did not do this. Instead, they went out and got into accidents or abandoned the cars - and liability was traced back to the seller, not the buyer (who was not listed with the state).
I suggested you accompany the buyer to the DMV (or equivalent) and watch as the new title is applied for. People laughed at me. Oh, how they laughed.
Many pointed out that CA has a process whereby a seller can go online and notify the state of the sale. Commenters told me, “Ipso facto, I am then safe.” Um, safe from what? What IF the buyer does not follow through and goes and does something bad?
Why does everyone believe everything will work out? Why do people not believe the kindly attorney handing out free advice (which is not to be taken as “legal” advice, per the disclaimer below)? I’ve even covered it in a podcast, in case this reading thing was too much for you.
I got correspondence from someone in CA this past week. He had sold a car. He went and did that online thing with the state. The buyer did not follow through and got in an accident. The victim of the accident sued the driver (buyer) of the car and sued him, the seller, who still showed up in the title history as the last properly titled owner of the vehicle.
Will this seller escape the lawsuit without having to pay? I hope so. Did the online thing save him? Not completely. How could he have avoided this? He could have done what I described in my article. (In fairness, his car sale took place before my article was posted but still - you get the point.)
There you have it. If you really trust your fellow man (who is a stranger), leave him to his own devices and hope he does the right thing. If you are skeptical, go to the DMV and get it done right. After all, I have now told you so - twice.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation.
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