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How To Get a Repossessed Car Back

If you choose to finance or lease a new or used car, your creditor can repossess your vehicle if you default on the loan. Repossession is taking back an item like a vehicle without a court order and often without warning after a loan default.

There are rules for repossessing vehicles that lenders must follow. Consumer rights regulate some aspects of the vehicle repossession process, including fair debt collection practices.

Since consumers rely on their vehicles to get to work, shop for groceries, and other essential activities, repossession can create a host of new challenges for the debtor. Your sales contract establishes the details of what constitutes a default. It can be as simple as missing a monthly payment.

This article focuses on how to get a repossessed car back from your creditor, which is not always an option and varies from state to state.

For more on other consumer protection laws covering vehicle purchases, see FindLaw's Lemon Law section.

Methods of Vehicle Repossession

Vehicle repossession laws vary by state, including allowable methods for repossession.

Most states require the repossessor (the lender, creditor, dealership, or finance company) to notify local law enforcement before the repossession. Others require they report the repossession shortly after.

In most cases, the repossessor uses the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and license plate number to locate your vehicle. They can get help from local law enforcement to find your vehicle.

Next, the creditor will use one of the following methods to reclaim your vehicle:

  • Have a tow truck tow your vehicle back to the car dealer
  • Hire a paid repo agent or repossession company
  • Use your vehicle's spare keys to unlock, start, and move your vehicle

Even if the creditor has a legal right to repossess your vehicle, they cannot breach the peace. What constitutes a breach of the peace depends on your state, but can include threats of force or breaking into a secured entry, like a locked garage.

What Happens to the Personal Property in My Car?

Legally, debt collectors can't keep or sell personal possessions in your vehicle at the time of repossession. Your state law determines the specific amount of time the lender has to allow you to collect your items.

Some states require the repossessor to notify you of the personal property in your vehicle and how to reclaim it.

Negotiate With Your Creditor

If you think you're going to have a late payment or were given advance notice of repossession, you may still have time to negotiate with your creditor to avoid losing your car. Your creditor might agree to a revised payment schedule. Make sure the creditor details any contractual changes in writing.

If the creditor refuses to revise payment terms, you can return the car yourself. This is known as a voluntary repossession and will reduce the amount of expenses you may owe.

Loan Reinstatement

If you did not receive an advance notice of repossession, most states allow you to get your car back a certain number of days after paying off your past-due loan balance and any associated repossession fees.

This is referred to as reinstating the loan. If your creditor gave you advance notice, you may only get your car back on terms the creditor agrees to. This varies by state.

Redeem Your Vehicle

After repossession, the creditor may either keep the car or resell it. Many states require the creditor to inform you of its intentions, such as the date of the sale or the time and place of a public auction. These regulations are in place to allow you to get your car back.

In any case, you may be able to redeem, or buy back, your repossessed car by paying:

  • The full amount owed for the vehicle
  • Other expenses from the repossession
  • The deficiency balance

In this context, the deficiency balance is the amount owed on the loan after the sale of the vehicle. It's the difference between the outstanding loan balance and the sale proceeds.

File Bankruptcy

An extreme method for getting a repossessed car back is through bankruptcy protection.

Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows you to negotiate a repayment plan.

You must file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy before the lender sells the repossessed vehicle. This type of bankruptcy prevents the lender from repossessing your vehicle without the court's permission.

What if the Repo Man Can't Find My Vehicle?

It's unlikely you can hide your vehicle from the repo man forever.

Some lenders hire repossession companies, or the “repo man," to collect repossessed vehicles. The lender provides vehicle information and known addresses which the company uses to locate your vehicle. If they cannot locate your vehicle, they notify the lender and offer advanced collection tactics, like skip tracing or license plate recognition, often at an additional fee.

Sometimes the lender will pay the repossession company for the additional services, or hire a new company instead. Your lender can also take you to small claims court to either force you to surrender the vehicle or provide its location.

Regardless of how long it takes to locate your vehicle, a repossession harms your credit report for up to seven years.

Need More Help With a Repossessed Vehicle? Get Legal Advice

If a creditor has repossessed your vehicle, you should understand your legal rights under your state's consumer protection laws.

Contact a local consumer law attorney for help getting your car back. An attorney knowledgeable about your state's laws regarding repossessions can review the specifics of your situation, represent your interests, and advocate on your behalf.

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