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Legal How-To: Repossessing a Car

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Repossessing a car isn't a pleasant task, but knowing the correct legal steps can at least make it an efficient one.

When your car buyer defaults on his or her payments, you need to be smart about how you proceed to get your car back. If you fail to follow the rules or things get out of hand, you could potentially face civil liability or even criminal charges.

To repo your car the smart and law-abiding way, here's a quick legal how-to:

1. Know Your State's Repo Laws.

Some states may require that you give notice to the local police department that you will repossess (or have repossessed) your car. For example, New York requires such notice immediately following the repo by personal appearance at the local station house. Indiana, on the other hand, requires repossession agents to provide notice and information about the vehicle either before or within two hours of repossession.

2. Make Sure the Debtor Is in Default.

In general, a car cannot be repossessed until the debtor (borrower) is in default. You should have the right under your auto sales contract to repossess the car when the buyer misses payments, but the terms of car sales agreements may differ. One missed payment is generally enough for default, as long as your agreement does not allow grace periods for late payments.

3. Locate and Verify the Car.

You can't repo a car if you don't know where it is. You may start by providing the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and license plate number to police. If you have located the car on your own, verify its identity with the VIN.

4. Choose the Method to Repossess.

Once you know that it's your car, the buyer is in default, and you've complied with state laws, then it's time to choose a way to physically take back possession of the vehicle. You may consider:

  • Calling a tow truck and having the car towed to your residence,
  • Contacting a paid repo agent, or
  • Using spare or replacement keys to unlock and start the car.

5. Do Not Breach the Peace.

You may be legally entitled to repo your car, but you shouldn't commit an illegal breach of the peace to take it back. In some states, this includes removing your car from a closed garage without permission.

Keep in mind, you may also be committing trespass if you enter private property without permission in order to repo your vehicle. Even if you are legally entitled to enter property to repo your car, you may want to avoid any method that may lead to a violent confrontation.

Need More Help?

If you have a valid vehicle sales agreement and your buyer is truly in default, the law should be on your side. For more personal guidance, consult an experienced collections lawyer near you.

Are you facing a legal issue you'd like to handle on your own? Suggest a topic for our Legal How-To series by sending us a tweet @FindLawConsumer with the hashtag #HowTo.

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