Life Lesson: Don’t Lose Track of Your Car Title

When I was growing up, my parents had a large filing cabinet in their home office that was filled with important paperwork. My parents didn’t keep a perfectly clean and clutter-free house or anything, but this filing cabinet was meticulously organized. All the documents my parents wanted to keep track of – from birth certificates to insurance policies to repair records – were safely stored in this cabinet and accessible within moments.


When I moved to grad school in 2008, I bought a desk that came with a small filing cabinet, and I decided to follow in my parents’ footsteps and keep all my important documents in it, highly organized. But even with the great example I grew up with, I failed my filing system in a major way, which ultimately cost me a significant amount of money.


First, a short history of my car ownership:

  • After living car-free in the DC suburbs for a year after college, I moved to Durham for grad school in fall 2008. Reluctantly, I bought a car – a 2002 Toyota Echo – from a private seller for $4,500.
  • I had $1,000 to put toward the purchase, but took out a loan for $5,000 for the remaining balance of $3,500 (yes, you read that right).
  • I paid off my car loan in December 2008 due to a small financial windfall, and then continued to make a car ‘payment’ to myself to refill my savings over the next 1.5 years.
  • In February 2012, about 1.5 years into our marriage, Kyle and I decided to stop driving my car, including letting the registration lapse and taking it off our insurance. We did not sell the car because we anticipated needing it again after we finished grad school.
  • In January 2015, we got my car in working order again (repaired, registered, insured) so I bring it to DC with me during my fellowship.
  • In June, Kyle accepted a job in Seattle, and we finally committed to being a one-car family and planned to sell my car before moving.


This is where the problem comes in. This is where I admit that my failure to adult properly cost us hundreds of dollars.




When Kyle and I got married, we combined and updated our important documents into matching filing cabinets. In doing so, I realized I was missing one of the most important pieces of documentation that I owned: my car title. Thinking back, I couldn’t remember ever receiving my car title after I paid off my car loan. I assumed that I had mistakenly thrown that piece of mail away without looking at it, and I foolishly put the matter out of my mind. After all, I had heard that it was a huge pain the butt to have a car title reissued and selling the car was nowhere on our horizon.


I didn’t really revisit this problem, except to feel guilty about it, until January 2015 when I started driving my car again. I called the DMV to figure out how to have the title reissued and was surprised to learn that the title wasn’t lost at all: the DMV had had the title in its possession for the last six years!


I had been operating under a misconception about car titles and loans. Apparently, in North Carolina, the DMV, not the lienholders, holds all titles with liens against them. When I paid off my loan at the end of 2008, my lienholder notified the DMV, and the DMV mailed the title to the lienholder, and the lienholder was supposed to forward it to me. However, the title never made it to the lienholder and was bounced back to the DMV. The DMV said that the lienholder’s address must have changed, but it hadn’t.


I should note that I’m not a blanket DMV hater. I actually had perfectly reasonable and good experiences with the NC DMV every time I had to interact with it during grad school. And in this whole experience, I blame myself and myself alone for failing to track down my car title when I first noticed I didn’t have it. But once I was ready to take steps to rectify the situation, the DMV suddenly became terribly incompetent.


So, great news! The DMV has the title! Over the phone, the DMV told me to fill out one simple form and send a check for $15 to get a copy of my title, and all would be resolved. I sent off that form before I moved to DC in January 2015.


When I moved back to Durham in April 2015, I realized that not only had I never received the title (sensing a pattern here?), but my check hadn’t even been cashed. Three months was enough time for processing, I thought, so I decided to get my former lienholder involved in the process. That bank went to bat for me and started dealing with the DMV on my behalf. In April 2015, they confirmed with the DMV that my lien had been released back in 2008 and requested the title and were assured that the wheels were now in motion to have the title mailed.


We moved from Durham to Seattle in July 2015. We still didn’t have the title, so we didn’t sell the car, but left it in Durham with a friend. Over the summer, I called my former bank approximately once per month to check on things, but all they could tell me was that the DMV had received the request and it were being processed. At some point, I was also told that the DMV was unusually backlogged this year, so a process that should have taken only about 6 weeks could now take an unknown number of months. Eventually, I stopped calling. At long last, approximately a year after starting this horrible, protracted process, we finally received the title from the DMV and got the wheels in motion to sell the car, over six months after we had intended to sell it.


I had no idea that my carelessness in keeping track of my car title would ultimately prevent us from selling my car when we wanted to. I had no idea that six months of lead time on trying to obtain the title from the DMV wouldn’t be enough. Please don’t repeat my mistake: Always know where your car title (and other important documentation) is, and stay on top of the agencies that are responsible for sending it to you once you own your car outright!


In my next post, I’ll share our attempt to sell my car without the title, and how the delay in receiving the title ultimately cost us hundreds of dollars.


Do you know where your title(s) are? Have you had any trouble transferring titles among owners, lienholders, and the state?


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9 Responses to "Life Lesson: Don’t Lose Track of Your Car Title"

  1. Leigh says:

    My lender never mailed it to me after I paid off the loan either. I paid it off in November 2011 and I figured out in October 2012 when I renewed my tabs that my tab letter indicated the legal owner was still the credit union, despite having a letter saying that I had paid off the loan in full. The credit union had changed names and moved in the meantime, so that’s perhaps related to the lien not getting removed. I was able to get the lien removed and the title fixed from the local DMV for ~$20, but I had to show up in person and they mailed it to me weeks later, so it wasn’t the end of the world, however, I resolved that I would never take out a car loan again, no matter the interest rate because this wasn’t worth the hassle of not legally owning my car myself when I could!

    1. Emily says:

      It’s interesting how different states handle this issue. I would have much preferred to go in person to get everything corrected/updated, but that wasn’t an option in NC. I’m so glad you caught and corrected the issue within a year instead of doing what I did! I can’t even imagine the mess if my bank had changed names and so forth years later.

  2. Yikes! Now I really want to sit down and make sure I have all the things I need in my filing cabinet.

    1. Emily says:

      It can be part of a yearly spring cleaning process!

  3. Such an important lesson — sorry you had to learn it the hard way to share it with us! I recently had to help my dad get a replacement title after he lost his, and it was not actually that hard. He just walked into the DMV in his state, paid whatever fee, and got a new title. But I assume that wasn’t an option in your case.

    1. Emily says:

      No, it wasn’t an option for me – if only! The process might have been different/easier if the DMV had ever removed the lien from the title, but they didn’t (more on that in my next post).

  4. Oh, Emily. Hope you realized that earlier. A simple detail like title would really save you time and money. 😀

    1. Emily says:

      I wish I had wised up sooner! The process wasn’t expensive or complicated, just incredibly drawn out.

  5. […] a recent post, I confessed that I lost track of my car title for about six years and only tried to have it sent to me once selling the car became a near-term […]

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