What Do I Need To Sell A Car?

Dustin Hawley | Mar 08, 2021

Regardless of the vehicle and ownership details, you’re going to need some documentation if you want to sell your car. But what kind of paperwork are you going to need?

how to sell a car

The answer to that question largely depends on what state you live in. Every state has its own requirements for titling, registration, inspection, and sales. With a country made up of 50 states, there are literally 50 different ways to sell a used car.

Regardless of each state’s requirements, there are a few basics that are relatively universal and used throughout the nation. And while some documents may not be legally required in some states, it is often wise to still have them on-hand. 

Here’s a list of everything you need to sell your car.


The one universal requirement for a vehicle sale is a clean title. A title serves as legal proof that you are the owner of the vehicle. This is important because, without a transfer of title, two or more people could have “proof” that they owned the same car!

A clean title is legible and contains accurate information, and is not torn or otherwise damaged. Clean titles also have no lien on them. In some states, they are accompanied by a lienholder’s statement that the balance has been paid in full.

If your title has a lien on it, you will need to pay off the lien’s balance before selling the car. Similarly, if your title has been lost or damaged, you’ll need to apply for a replacement with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Keep in mind that all listed owners must sign the title for the car to be sold. For example, if you and your spouse jointly own a family SUV, you’ll both have to sign the title for the transaction to be completed.

Bill Of Sale

Many states require a bill of sale to be created in order for an automobile to be legally transferred from one owner to another. In some states, the DMV provides an official form. In states without an official form, any bill of sale will do as long as it includes the following information on the vehicle:

  • Make
  • Model
  • Year
  • Color
  • VIN
  • Odometer reading at the time of sale
  • Name and address of both the buyer and seller
  • Buyer and seller signatures
  • Sales price

Even if your state does not require a bill of sale, it’s a good idea to have one anyway. Provided it’s signed, it serves as yet another record of the transaction. Make sure to fill out two copies: one for the seller and one for the buyer.

Emissions Inspection

In states that require a vehicle emissions inspection, you’ll need to make sure yours is up to date before you can sell your car. Furthermore, a handful of states require an emissions inspection within a minimum number of days before a sale is conducted.

Keep in mind that there are often exceptions to emissions rules. For example, some states exempt hybrid vehicles from their inspections regime, while classic cars (cars over 25 years old) are also usually exempt. Most of these vehicles are exempt for the simple reason that it’s all but impossible for a decades-old car to meet today’s modern, clean air standards.

Safety Inspection

Like an emissions inspection, some states require cars to be inspected for safety before a sale can occur. Requirements vary, but mechanics usually check the tires, brakes, turn signals, and other common failure points to ensure the vehicle is safe for operation.

Savvy buyers may also ask for a safety inspection, even when one is not legally required. It’s a logical demand, being that they’re trusting their life with this vehicle. Potential buyers want to know a car is safe to drive before they purchase it. But unless it’s a state requirement, a seller should never pay for a safety inspection. The buyer should pay for the inspection and have the option of choosing their mechanic.

Warranty Documents

Fortunately for both buyers and sellers, most of today’s vehicle warranties are transferable to the new owner. So if your five-year-old car has a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, that’s a great added value for potential buyers. 

But without the warranty paperwork, the new owner will not be able to file a claim. To avoid this potential headache, make sure to hand over any extended warranty documents at the time of sale. These are all part of an overall package, and the more documentation you have on your vehicle, the higher price you’ll be able to command.

Maintenance Records

A well-maintained car is worth more than one that has never had an oil change or a wheel alignment. If you have all of your maintenance records, you can prove to a prospective buyer that your maintenance is up to date and the vehicle is in good working order.

Keeping detailed service records also serves another purpose; buyers will know exactly what work has been performed, down the exact services and parts used in the process. This can prove invaluable to their own mechanic, potentially saving them hours of labor.

Vehicle History Report

Ensure that you have a copy of your vehicle history report before selling your car.

A vehicle history report is a record of everything significant that’s happened with your vehicle, with information sourced from state records, insurance companies, and even repair service records. While relatively thorough, this report is limited to “significant” events, so it won’t show you records of oil changes, for instance.

Buyers will access important information on the car, including accident reports, damage due to fire or flood, previous sales, etc. For example, if your car had a tree fall on it and all the windows were replaced, that information would appear on the vehicle history report.

On many occasions, buyers will choose to run a report on their own. However, having one available to potential customers can further boost buyer confidence. A vehicle history report is relatively cheap and can be downloaded from on platforms like Carfax. The process takes just a few minutes, and considering the benefits, it’s difficult to imagine why a seller wouldn’t take the initiative to source one.

Report Of Sale

The final step to selling your car occurs after the transaction has been completed. After your vehicle has been sold, you need to report your sale to the state. 

Note that this is not necessarily a requirement in all states. For instance, New York has no such requirement. On the other hand, in states where a report is required, it’s a legal obligation that should be taken seriously. By law, sellers in most states are required to report a sale in a matter of days or weeks.

Failing to report the sale of your vehicle is detrimental in multiple ways. For one, it is against the law, as outlined above. But secondly, it could leave you liable for damages incurred by the vehicle after being sold. If you fail to report the sale, and the buyer hits another car and flees the scene, you could find yourself a party to a lawsuit. By reporting the sale, you ensure that your name is no longer attached to the vehicle in any way, therefore releasing you from any further liability.

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