Help, my BMW dealership is holding my title hostage!

highway2Question: I bought a BMW 750 Li from my local dealership recently. Last week, I tried to sell the car to a private party and was told by my bank that I could not sell the car because the dealership hadn’t supplied them with the title.

It doesn’t look as though they will be able to find the title in time for me to sell the car, so I’ve spoken with the dealership about buying the car back. But we can’t agree on a price.

I’ve been told that they’ll pay me $28,000 for the car. Then a representative backpedaled and said, “If the tires are bald or there are dents or dings, maybe not that much.”

I have put about 6,000 miles on the car and had it serviced at the dealership. The car is in the exact same condition as when I drove it off the lot except for a rock chip in the right rear tail light.

I have had the car listed for sale and the KBB trade-in value is between $30,627 and $31,627. The dealership says KBB is not a true indicator of market value (funny, because when I bought the car, they used KBB as if it was a bible). Can you help me?

Monique Vasanji, Carmel, Calif.

Answer: This one’s a little confusing. I had never heard of a car being sold without a title, but when I called the BMW dealership, a manager told me it can happen with a used vehicle. However, it’s “highly unusual” for a title to go missing for as long as yours did.

I asked about the whereabouts of the title and was told the dealership was trying to track it down, but a manager agreed that your best option would be to sell the car back to the dealership.

Before I get to the resolution, let me just say this: Never buy a car without a title, no matter how reputable the seller is. No title, no car.

The real problem you’re encountering is the value of the car. How much are those 6,000 miles you put on the Beemer going to cost you? The dealership wants to make as much money as it can off the BMW when it resells it, so it’s downplaying the KBB value in an effort to increase its profit.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But it does seem a little odd that the same salesmen who swore that KBB was the bible of car prices are now saying it’s not a true indicator of a vehicle’s value.

Well, which is it?

You have to be careful — very, very careful — when you’re negotiating with a dealership over a trade-in value. When you’re buying a new vehicle, it’s almost always better to sell your old car on the market instead of trading it in. The dealership will invariably try to lowball you, casting aspersions on KBB or anyone else who would claim your old ride is worth more than it says.

(By the way, if you ever encounter a problem like this, you can appeal it directly to BMW North America’s executive contacts.)

I contacted the dealership and it agreed to buy the vehicle for the value of the balance of your loan, which you accepted.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Yeah, VERY strange to buy a car and not get the title. Did that not come up? Proof of ownership, anyone?

  • EdB

    I’m wondering how the sale was completed in the first place without the title. If the OP needed the title to sell it, why didn’t the dealership need it too? Did the OP not get the car transferred to his name? I would think the state would require the title for the transfer. Something about this dealership sounds fishy.

  • Raj

    Quie confusing highway seems like the one one the way to Tibet Lasha from kathmandu !, Raj from Kathmandu !

  • Christopher Elliott

    We had some technical problems yesterday, so I pulled a generic shot from our archives.

  • BillCCC

    You are right it is confusing. Don’t you need the title to put a license plate on the vehicle. I have to agree with others that there is something fishy going on.

  • Nancy Nally

    The car’s owner should demand the same price that the private buyer was going to give them, since the dealership’s screw-up lost them that sale!

  • Nancy Nally

    Not necessarily. I don’t have the title to my car because it is a lease vehicle and I still have the plate registered in my name.

  • severnwatcher

    I dont understand why this is so can get a duplicate title from the DMV, is BMW too lazy to request one from them???

  • TonyA_says

    Was this a lease with a purchase option, to begin with?
    Otherwise, I cannot make any sense of this article. Sorry, too confusing.

    Added: A new BMW 750 Li costs about 70-80k++. A trade in value in the 30k range suggests the car was a used car to begin with (when she got it from the dealer).

  • Jim Daniel

    TOTAL NON-ISSUE in California. All your concerns are for nothing. You need no “TITLE” paper. It’s all electronic.

    I STRONGLY recommend you phone the DMV (YES, it will take a while on hold) and ask them about the documents you need to sell the car.

    I have sold cars to which I have no actual piece of paper called “Title” in California. Only YOU seem to be convinced that you have to have it. The Registration document shows everything you need to sell the car.
    To paraphrase the movie, Treasures of the Sierra Madre, “I don’t got to show you no stinking papers.”

    IF You still feel the urge to have the pretty, multi-colored “Document” then walk into a DMV office in Fremont, Santa Clara, or Redwood City and get in line (YES, it will take a while). They will issue the paperwork that shows you as Registered Owner and the bank as Legal Owner (title holder). As long as the bank is being satisfied in the transaction, the new purchaser will receive a NEW title in the mail directly from the DMV.

  • Debby Appel

    Buying a car without a title was not an uncommon situation I found in my 30+ years of law practice. Things get lost/misfiled- it happens but I’ve NEVER seen a dealer not provide a duplicate title after all searches were exhausted. There is “more to this story”. My first thought is that if this was a used car maybe the title showed an unreleased lien from the prior owner. Oops. And embarrassing to the dealership & potentially an illegal sale. Your resolution is ideal this could be a situation that could have resulted in lots of time/$ down the road

  • EdB

    If the Dealer got the car from out of state, there still could be an issue with the title since California wouldn’t have it in its system.

  • Eric

    It’s probably from one of those “buy here, pay here” car lots.

    The car was sold very cheap, so I would suspect it’s been salvaged, or had major damage…..or doesn’t have a title because it’s stolen.

  • DougG

    One possible scenario is that dealership took the BMW in on a trade, then quickly turned around and sold the car to the OP. They would have had to wait to get the title released from the original lienholder, which can take weeks, then turn around and get a new title issued to the OP, which again can take weeks. The story is unclear on how long the OP owned the car before selling it, but just says that he purchased it “recently”.

    I think the dealership messed up by selling a car they did not have a title on-hand to, then the OP did the same thing by trying to sell the car without the title as well.

  • sirwired

    This dealership should be reported to the part of the state DMV that regulates vehicle dealerships. Not promptly supplying clear title to a car you’ve sold (or selling a car where you don’t actually have the title) is highly illegal. Titles get lost. It happens, especially on trade-ins. (If there’s an outstanding loan, the title on the paid-off loan can be sent to the wrong place.) But getting a new one is almost always no more involved than paying a small fee to the DMV.

    If you don’t have the title (either paper or electronic, where applicable), in the eyes of the law, you don’t clearly own the car.

    On another note, how was he able to register the car? You need a title to register a vehicle, right? Did he drive without plates for months?

    Here in NC, there was a used car dealership a couple of years ago that got in huge trouble through similar circumstances. Basically, they would take possession of a trade-in, sell it, but not pay off the previous owner’s loan. It went undected for a while because the old owners were told to ignore any non-payment nastygrams from the bank while their payoff was “being processed.”

  • User921394932

    Just go to the DMV and pay $60 for a replacement title.

  • sirwired

    I don’t know… he did put 6,000 miles on the thing. He had to have owned it more than a couple of weeks unless he did nothing but non-stop road trips from the minute he took possession.

    And a dealership (but not an individual) CAN sell a car they don’t actually have the title on-hand for, but there are limits as to how long the process is supposed to take. (A couple of weeks, tops, to receive the title from the lienholder. If the title is lost, a replacement doesn’t take weeks unless your state is REALLY slow… it should take nothing more than a single trip to the DMV.)

  • Christopher Elliott

    No, she purchased the car from the dealership according to my notes.

  • TonyA_says

    You are referring to CA’s ELTP Electronic Lien and Title Program….

  • TonyA_says

    There was the lien holder. She had a loan on the vehicle. Without paying it off first, then she could not get a clean title in the first place. Correct? Wonder if the dealer was the lien holder itself?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Great post. I was thinking the same thing. Titles get lost all the time, but they can be replaced. You can’t register a car without the title and temporary tags in California are only supposed to be good for three months. Yet they’re still nowhere close to getting her a title even after she’s put 6,000 miles on the car? And they’re talking about the possibility of the tires being bald? She said the sale was “recently” but I’m wondering what that means in this case.

  • emanon256

    The last 2 times I bought cars (My wife’s in 2010 and mine in 2011), we decided which specific cars we were going to get in advance. I then brought in NADA, KBB, and Edmunds prices for both the car I was trading in, and the specific vehicle I was buying. When I quoted NADA first, I was told KBB is the golden rule, so I pulled out KBB and showed them. When I quoted KBB first, they told me NADA was the golden rule, so I pulled out NADA. I also noticed that the KBB print out they showed me didn’t match mine, so I made them re-run it in front of me and suddenly it did. No one seemed to care about Edmunds. But once I caught the dealer in a lie, I suddenly got a much better price.

    I then used my ultimate strategy, after negotiating, and going through most of the motions, I told them I changed my mind and that I am not ready to spend the money, then I walked out. In both cases, I got a call an hour later with an even better price.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    It seems pretty clear from the story there’s no title available PERIOD, paper or electronic. The dealership wouldn’t be talking to her about buying the car back if all she needed to do is call the DMV. And California banks would also be well aware their state has electronic titles.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Same situation across the river in Council Bluffs, IA, a year ago. Wonder if the NC people moved to IA to perpetuate their shady dealings? And now they’re in CA?

  • emanon256

    Good point, I needed a title to get my tags. Although, I didn’t get the real title, the bank got it. I got a paper from the state showing that the title had been filed listing me as the new owner and the title was sent to the lender.

    How would the OPs bank have let them have a loan with no Title?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    It had to be a used car, both because of the price she states and the absence of a clear title. What I think happened is the dealership bought this car from somebody and something went amiss with the title. Either the seller didn’t have clear title, or it got lost. My suspicion would be there’s a problem beyond it just being lost because replacing a lost title isn’t usually hard unless there are other complications.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    They wouldn’t be talking to her about buying the car back if it were as simple as getting a duplicate. Something went wrong with the deal prior to the OP’s–the transaction that got the car to the dealership from whoever had it previously.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    California’s website says it can take up to six weeks for all the paperwork on a sale to be available to the state, but their temporary tags are only good for 3 months which suggests they see that as being plenty of time for all the ducks to get in-a-row. I think DougG’s scenario is likely, that there was some holdup getting the title from the sale preceding the OP getting the car.

  • emanon256

    That confuses me to. if it was a private bank, why would they allow her to have a loan without holding the title themselves? She could just not pay and the bank can’t do anything as they don’t have the title. Maybe the OP only owned the car for a month?

    I bought a car from a private party a while back and the seller had a loan on it, and I was getting a loan. She got it inspected for emissions, and I got it inspected by my mechanic. Then we wrote out a bill of sale for the total price, which I took to the DMV with the emissions paperwork to get a temporary plate. I then got 2 cashiers checks from my bank, one for her, one for her bank. The money was split between money I was paying, and the auto loan I took from my bank (I had 30 days to get the the title). We then met at her bank, and after I paid off the loan they released the title to her, and she signed it over to me. I listed my bank as the lien holder, took it to the DMV to get the tags, and brought the title to my bank. It sounds complicated, but it was quite easy. The bank actually outlined all of the steps for us.

  • bodega3

    When you buy a car, new or used, and get a loan, the lender is on the title. If you pay the loan off, they release the lein and give you the title. What we don’t know if the time period of the purchase and then the sale. Sounds like the guy was ‘flipping’ the car for a fast buck and the paperwork was still in transition.

    BTW, in CA it takes weeks (more like months) for paperwork to get processed. We have sold cars, immediately mailing the DMV the paperwork, only to receive parking ticket notifications weeks down the line, that took months to get straightened out. Another car we sold was involved in a hit and run weeks after we sold it and that was a PITA to get us out of the loop.

  • TonyA_says

    Joe, how did her bank protect their interest? You mean they gave her a loan for the car without a title?

  • sirwired

    But even if it takes a while for CA to process all the paperwork, that should only hold up the new plate. It should not have held up the transfer of the title to the dealership from the original owner. (The dealership doesn’t have to fill out a new title application until they sell the car… that is what “Dealer Plates” are for.) 6,000 miles worth of driving should have been more than enough to get the title to the car and file an application for the new one.

    I think the dealership never obtained clear title to the car to begin with and they simply issued temporary tags without filing (or intending to file) a thing. (this is called “title kiting”, and it’s a very bad thing) If they had already filled out the New Title Application, they would not have offered to buy the car back… why would they? It would be out of their hands by that point.

  • Heather Amaral

    When I recently purchased a new car, something similar almost happened to me. I knew what car I wanted, so searching various dealerships was easy. I found one at a CarMax near to me, went down and test drove, and decided I would like to purchase. My financing was through my own credit union and not the dealership — I was getting a much better deal this way — and thinking all was going well until the bank called me and told me, “We’re asking them for the title to the car and they can’t provide one because they don’t have it.” The bank refused to proceed without the title because that is their security. When I called the dealership, they tried to pressure me into taking their financing temporarily (at a far, far higher interest rate) and then when the title came in I could pay that loan off with the one from my bank. I said, “Absolutely not because if anything happens I am stuck with a loan I don’t want, and a car I have no title to.” They said they sold cars like this all the time, and I persisted in saying no way. The salesman then berated me and hung up. I would never deal with them again!

  • y_p_w

    Dealers put money and time into prepping a used car for sale. The seller has already been paid.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Crazy as it sounds, that does happen as it isn’t that uncommon for cars to be sold prior to the title “catching up” to the car. I’m not exactly sure how it works on the business side of things, but a large and established dealership would be a pretty safe bet to come up with a clean title. And if “her” bank also happened to be one of the institutions that dealership worked with a lot, they’d be even more inclined to not hold up the deal.

  • Raven_Altosk

    It’s illegal EVEN FOR A DEALER to sell a car without a title. (At least in this state!) I would’ve called the cops the minute they started pussyfooting around.

    Car was probably stolen, had an altered VIN, or had a dirty title and the dealership just unloaded it on a buyer hoping they wouldn’t notice.

  • Raven_Altosk

    CarMax is the Wal-Mart of car dealers. NEVER use them.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Good point. Could’ve been a salvaged title, but those usually require a separate disclosure at time of sale. (Not that this dealership sounds reputable to begin with, but hey…)

  • Joe_D_Messina

    A friend of a friend got in a huge mess a while back because the state failed to properly identify a car as salvaged. They issued a normal, non-salvage title by mistake, the person bought the car thinking things were fine, and only found out there was a problem when they went to register and the state somehow had caught the mistake by then and told them “sorry.” Not exactly sure what the final resolution was, but it was a disaster. Their loan was for way more than the car was actually worth, the dealership didn’t want to take it back because they also had overpaid due to the error, the bank wanted their money regardless of what the true value was, and of course the state didn’t want to make anybody whole financially even though they’d caused the whole problem.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Then they can sue the original seller for their money back if he can’t get them a clean title. Without a title, the dealership wasn’t legally supposed to sell it. Selling cars is their entire business and they get stuck without a title? Incredibly stupid of them.

    I’m not sure they’d be on the hook for the resale deal the OP had lined up, but it sounds like they don’t even want to refund the entire amount the OP paid them, which is absurd.

  • TonyA_says

    So that’s where the term wheeling and dealing probably came from :-)

  • TonyA_says

    Like maybe a beamer seized by cops on a drug bust?

  • mythsayer

    Right, and here in CA the way you get out of those (which I’m sure is how you did) is by filling out this paper which releases YOU from liability since you sold the car, but you have to mail it to the DMV ASAP as it’s only effective upon mailing.

    When you have a loan on a car here (and I’m sure that car did when the original guy traded it in, based on the price of the car), the title never goes into the hands of the buyer… it’s supposed to go through the dealer and banks only. The only time a person gets hands on title is when the loan is paid BY THAT PERSON. So if the dealership paid off the original loan, they should have been sent the title by the BANK that had the loan. The bank probably messed up and lost the title or it got sent to the wrong place. The dealership didn’t notice and the buyer here probably did have the car for less than 3 months or so.

    I actually had something similar happen with a NEW car… the dealership screwed something up and the title was lost and they had to get a new one, all the while my bank is freaking out that they had no title, threatening to cancel my loan, and the DMV wouldn’t give me license plates.

    So, yeah… the dealership had to fix this, and they did the right thing by buying the car back for the loan value.

  • mythsayer

    It takes time for the title to get to the banks… they understand this and don’t freak out unless the title doesn’t get to them until about 90 days after the sale. Navy Federal will convert your loan to a personal signatory loan if they don’t get the title. My husband bought a salvage title car before he met me and it was a shady deal (he didn’t know better then) and I had to threaten to sue the guy who sold it to him to get him to finally get the title issue cleaned up because Navy Fed was freaking out. They are willing to work with you to deal with issues like this that arise, but I would say no more than 6 months.

  • mythsayer

    The buyer wouldn’t have known there was no title here in California… you buy a used car from a dealer and the dealer would send the title directly to the bank, in theory… or to the DMV, who would pass it on to the bank. If the first lienholder hadn’t sent the title over yet, you would never know this would become a problem.

  • mythsayer

    The buyer can’t do that. She isn’t the “title owner”. The BANK, probably in conjunction with the dealer, would have needed to do that. You can get a new title if you own the car free and clear, but if you don’t, you gotta get these big companies to do it for you and that’s a huge pain. That’s why they didn’t want to do it…. besides there possibly being other issues with the title, as people are speculating.

  • bodega3

    Even with mailing the paperwork off, it takes months for things to get straight at the DMV. We have a horrible track record of selling cars, then having new owners do something stupid and we have to deal with it due to the delay in Sacramento.
    BTW, if you donate your car to charity, title doesn’t get changed until the charity sells your car. Again, another issue we encountered when we were notified that our truck, which we donated, was impounded and was being auctioned off to cover the towing company’s expenses. It had been 3 years since we donated the truck and the new owner never took care of the final paperwork when they bought the truck from the charity because the truck didn’t pass the smog test. All this was found out when the new owner let an undocumented person drive the truck and got pulled over for a DUI. We are trading in all our vehicles from now on!

  • Nigel Appleby

    One thing I learned as an insurance broker for almost 25 years and concentrating on auto insurance during that time is that every jurisdiction in N. America (50 states, 10 provinces, 3 territories, 1 district etc) has a different procedure in some way or another. Sometimes it’s a small difference between jurisdictions, sometimes large differences in procedures. So whar might apply with DMV in one place may not apply somewhere else, so we need to be careful with applying our home procedures to an incident in another jurisdiction

  • Grant Ritchie

    Here in CA, you can go to, and electronically file a form that gets you off the liability hook within one business day. It’s called an NRL (Notice of Transfer and Release of Liability).

  • TheBride

    There should be a title. If there is no title, the source of the vehicle is in question–something is wrong. Even if the title was lost, another can be gotten from the DMV because it has to be on file. I smell a bad deal or stolen car.

  • Eric

    /shrug I despise Wal-Mart but I have bought 2 cars from CarMax and it was about as easy of a process as I could ask for. No pressure, my bank had the lowest interest rates so I went with them.

    No exaggeration that the entire process took an hour or so total.

    Unlike the scumbag Jeep dealer here in town where we bought my wife’s Grand Cherokee. 6 hours.

  • User921394932

    Who buys a car without seeing the title?? I could have been stamped

    “Factory Buy Back” AKA lemon, or Salvaged, and then repaired

  • Guest

    “Show me the CarFax!” *grin*

  • bodega3

    We were never liable for any of the issues with cars we have sold, it was that it just took our time to get the DMV to get the records straight.

  • Grant Ritchie

    As a fellow Californian, you have my complete sympathy on having to go to DMV; talk about feeling like cattle! :-)