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Great Deal or a Big Headache? How to Title a Motorcycle Without Title

Buying a motorcycle is a great adventure, but it can also be a headache when you run into titling issues. Depending on the type of bike and its overall value, you might opt for purchase even if the title is missing or questionable. Here’s everything you need to know on how to title a motorcycle without title, plus how to stay safe while doing so.

Can You Buy a Motorcycle Without a Title?

In most states, the owner of a motorcycle must possess the title and appropriate registration documents. However, there are exceptions to the rule. California law states that miniature motorcycles, such as mini-choppers or pocket bikes, do not require a title or registration as they are not legal to operate on public streets.

Scooters are also often exempt from motorcycle titling laws. However, even off-highway vehicles must possess titles in many states, including California. Trail bikes, ATVs, dune buggies, and snowmobiles all must have a legitimate title for legal operation in California.

In general, the requirements for changing ownership of a motorcycle in California are:

  • Possession of the title (pink slip) or an application for a duplicate/paperless title
  • The signature of the seller(s) (and lienholder, as applicable) on the title
  • The signature of the buyer on the title
  • An odometer disclosure for motorcycles under ten years old
  • Current smog certification
  • The transfer fee
  • Taxes and any other applicable fees

How to Buy a Motorcycle Without a Title

It is possible to buy a motorcycle without a title, but there are a few steps involved to make sure the transaction goes smoothly. And, the good news is, you don’t need a motorcycle license to buy or register a motorcycle. So no matter whether you plan to ride on the street, off the road, or restore a bike in your spare time, you don’t need a license to get started.

Get a Bill of Sale (Preferably Notarized)

No matter how you purchase any motor vehicle—motorcycle, 3 wheel motorcycle, car, scooter, or otherwise—make sure to ask the seller for a bill of sale. If you can have the bill of sale notarized, that’s even better—it’s legal proof you paid for the motorcycle, so the owner can’t go back on their terms.

As long as the person transferring the bike to you is the legal owner, their name on the bill of sale helps cut out any property ownership issues that could come up. Plus, it protects you from scammers, especially if you must take delivery of the bike or come back for it later, rather than ride it home.

Do Your Research on the Bike

Consult data like used motorcycle values and market trends before buying a motorcycle without a title. For older bikes, particularly antique ones, you may not need a standard title or registration paperwork.

Some older motorcycles come with a “registration receipt” in certain states, and this is all the paperwork you need to legally transfer a bike. Guidelines vary based on the state, the condition of the motorcycle, and even its value, so make sure you know what you’re looking at before opening your wallet.

Consider the Implications of a Floating Title

A floating title is one which doesn’t hold the name of the person who’s selling the motorcycle to you. In most cases, the seller is acting as the intermediary, selling the bike for someone else, or they might have purchased it to flip it.

Especially if the registration was already out of date, the previous buyer might have chosen to let the registration keep sliding to avoid DMV fees. They also avoided paying sales tax on the transaction.

While technically the practice is illegal (unless the seller is a legitimate vehicle dealer), most buyers (and sellers) feel morally in the right when it comes to avoiding unnecessary DMV fees. The choice is ultimately yours but know that you will wind up paying transfer fees, and possibly more than what a currently registered bike would cost.

Getting a New Title (When Your Bike Doesn’t Have One)

There are less scrupulous methods that give consumers options for how to title a motorcycle without title, but the legality of these methods is arguable. Some riders build their bikes, then purchase a title and VIN plate to pair with the bike as a quick way to get road-ready approval (without really getting approval).

Though not legal, not many motorcycle owners object to the practice on moral grounds. However, purchasing a VIN for a bike can cause problems later if the VIN you obtain has a connection to a bike that still exists somewhere.

Plus, a questionable-looking VIN plate (or a number which clearly does not match the make or model of your bike or is in the wrong location) can call attention to your ride during an otherwise routine traffic stop. Of course, obtaining a new title through less than legal means is something you should only do at your own risk.

Check the VIN Number

If a motorcycle lacks a VIN number, it’s a good idea to pass on the purchase. Verifying the VIN can give you peace of mind that the bike isn’t stolen, while an absent VIN tends to suggest the opposite. Especially for damaged bikes or those that are older and in disrepair, knowing the VIN gives you an additional layer of protection against scams.

Some motorcycles may have an updated VIN on the paperwork, which isn’t always bad news. In some cases, a replacement VIN may result from a stolen and recovered bike or one which is a custom machine rather than from a big-name manufacturer.

Precautions When Buying a Motorcycle Without a Title

When you begin looking to buy a motorcycle, you might start shopping locally with private sellers to make the purchase more affordable. However, there are precautions to consider when buying a motorcycle, particularly if the bike you want doesn’t have a valid title.

Duplicate Title Availability

In most cases, the registered owner of a vehicle (car or motorcycle) can obtain a replacement or duplicate title quite easily. There is an application that owners can use to obtain a replacement certificate and sell a vehicle, so a seller’s reluctance to handle the task might indicate other issues with the bike.

Replacing a title is straightforward unless the owner of the motorcycle still owes money on a loan. A motorcycle with a lien on it will not have a title available since the lienholder keeps the title until the loan balance reaches zero.

Other Things to Be Aware of When Buying a Motorcycle Without a Title

Often, shopping for a motorcycle can be thrilling and exhilarating. You may not be thinking about potential safety issues or the legalities of purchasing a motor vehicle. But there are other things to be aware of when buying a motorcycle without a title apart from the seller’s story.

For example, if the owner has no title in hand and the motorcycle shows signs of damage—like the ignition lock is broken or parts are missing—that is a bad sign. Keeping your safety in mind, find a way to decline the sale and get yourself out of there immediately.

It’s possible someone selling a damaged or stolen motorcycle might be running a scam, especially if they know you arrived ready to perform the transaction with cash. Used bikes can be good deals, but they can also be more trouble than they’re worth.