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PURCHASING A NO-TITLE VEHICLE – Part I

When you purchase an antique motorcycle (or any other antique vehicle) that does not have a title, you have two problems.

First, let's explore some different methods for finding out if the vehicle has been stolen...

IS IT STOLEN?

Titles get lost. People die. Motorcycles get left in odd places. And sometimes they do get stolen. Ask the seller for the “VIN” (for most antique motorcycles, this is the engine serial number) - an honest seller will give it to you. If the seller refuses to give you the serial number prior to the sale, it's because they know or suspect something, and don't want to get caught with stolen goods. Neither do you. Sometimes you just have to walk away.

You would think finding out if a vehicle has been stolen would be an easy task, especially in this modern world where everything is computerized, but it's not. You're going to have to do some work.

THE BEST WAY - ASK THE POLICE OR DMV

The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is the FBI's database [1] of just about everything that involves crime, and stolen vehicles is part of that repository. But the FBI won't let you into their database at least not directly, so you have to go through your local police or DMV.

All police departments have the ability to check with the NCIC to access information on both you and your vehicle - that's exactly what they're doing on the radio or in-car computer when they pull you over. Most state DMVs also do a NCIC stolen vehicle check before they will issue you a title.[2]

The best way to find out is to go to your local police department, tell them you saw a for sale ad for an antique motorcycle for which the title got lost. You got the VIN (engine serial number for pre-1981 motorcycles) from the seller, and you'd like to make sure it has never been reported stolen before you spend $$$ on it, and end up with a big problem. So is there any way they can check the serial number?

In some states/localities, the police are the ones to run a stolen vehicle check for you. Other places want citizens to go to the DMV for this. But such ad hoc queries are not normal business for the DMV, so you might try your local police department first.

GREAT RESOURCE - NICB VINcheck

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) is an alliance of insurance companies who share data on vehicle theft and fraud. You can check your serial number at their VINcheck website which is available free of charge. Unfortunately, VINcheck only reports theft records for the last five years.[3] Our antique vehicles may have been stolen 10, 20, 30, or more years ago, so for us, this is inconclusive.

Of importance to us is VINcheck's "total loss" results - where the insurance company determined the cost of repairs after an accident/fire/theft to be prohibitive, and paid a claim based on the market value of the vehicle. Note that "total loss" has nothing to do with the disposition of the vehicle - the owner may have chosen to keep it, it could have been salvaged (rebuilt), scrapped for parts, or destroyed.

If you get a “total loss” hit from VINcheck, you should then check for “brands” on NMVTIS. Brands such as “scrap” might make it impossible to get a title. See, NMVTIS, below, for more information on “brands”.

The NICB VINcheck is a great resource, but the five-year limit for theft data may not tell the whole story.

GREAT RESOURCE BUT NOT FOR THEFTS NMVTIS

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) http://www.vehiclehistory.gov is the federal government sponsored national vehicle title database, which is a lot easier to get into, but again, not directly. On the NMVTIC website, click on "Check Vehicle History", and you will see a number of "approved" websites that can access it for you for a small fee ranging from 49 cents to $5.95. Most of these sites will not charge you if they do not have any record of the vehicle.

All state DMVs, insurance companies, recyclers, scrap and salvage yards must report vehicle transactions to the NMVTIS. But the NMVTIS does NOT contain theft data. However, the "approved vendors" are allowed to report data gathered from other sources, such as theft data from the NICB. These vendors do not tell you where they get their other data, such as theft records, so the veracity and completeness of their "other data" is unknown.

NMVTIS does provide some useful information that you will need for getting a title.

NMVTIS reports whether "brands" have been applied to this vehicle. These brands include things like "scrap", "salvage", "flood", "cash for clunkers", etc. If a junkyard has reported that the vehicle has been destroyed ("scrap" or "cash for clunkers"), it is highly unlikely that you will be able to get a title for it. Other brands, like "flood" are just cautionary. Brands are not standardized - each state has their own brand definitions, and rules about what you can and can't do with a branded vehicle.

NMVTIS will also tell you the state and date where the vehicle was last titled. This may (or may not) be useful to you when you evaluate whether you can get a title for this vehicle in your state. Should you need to get records from that state, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) maintains a list of How to Request a State Vehicle Record from each state.

LEAST BEST FREE WEB SITES

There are a number of free web sites which purport to check a VIN number for you, but they don't tell you which databases they are checking. Perhaps you get exactly what you pay for. Some of these free web sites will only accept 1981-and-later 17-digit VINs.

SEARCH ALL THE DATABASES

None of the national databases are perfect. The NCIC is the oldest (1967), and most authoritative regarding theft. But it probably took a decade or more before every police department in the country had computers and was reporting to them. And a lot of historic theft data did not get transferred. I had a motorcycle stolen around 1975, and reported it to the local police. Today, the NCIC, NMVTIS, and NICB databases all report "No records".

The NMVTIS is quite recent (2009). But even today, in 2015, not all the states are reporting to them. Many of our antique vehicles have not been sold in decades, and historic records probably did not get reported to them.

The NICB is over 100 years old. However, as noted above, theft records only go back five years. The age of their “total loss” records is unknown, but probably goes back many, many years.

Use every tool available to you in exercising your "due diligence" search. It's cheap insurance.

Notes:
[1] Information about these databases may not be 100% technically correct. What we're calling the “NCIC” is actually multiple databases, hosted at multiple locations, by multiple organizations, and accessed via several methods. The details get quite confusing.
[2] Both entities probably use the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS), which pulls theft records from the non-public portion of the NICB database, as well as other things from other databases. Are you confused yet?
[3] In actuality, the NICB database contains theft records going back decades, but by agreement with the NCIC, only the last five years are available to the public. Older records are only available to Law Enforcement and DMVs.

Proceed to Part II – Getting a Title In Your State