Skip to Main Content
20% Off Select Dainese All-Weather Gear Ends In:  
Common Tread

How to avoid title problems when buying a used motorcycle

Feb 07, 2017

Most people are skittish buying a used bike.

Understandable, right? Nobody wants to get taken. The reason so many folks fret, I’ve come to discover, is that they don’t know exactly how they’re gonna get took. So they worry. This article is here to help you discern between a good deal and bait that scumbag sellers use to lure unsuspecting saps into buying a headache.

Before we start: These are the opinions of Lem-lem, not necessarily those of RevZilla. If I condone something illegal, well, that’s Lem-lem talking to you, not Big Orange. So in case you're thinking about buying a used bike in February, like I suggested, let’s talk about some common title scenarios and what you might want to do if you run into them.

No title

A seller with no title might be completely legitimate, or a total scammer. If the bike shows signs of being stolen — busted ignition lock, nervous seller, or it’s been parted out — you probably want to decline the sale. Find another reason to ixnay the purchase, though. If someone was willing to rip off a bike, they may be willing to cave in the back of your skull to get the wad of cash in your pocket. You can head these off at the pass by asking for the VIN. There is no valid reason for a seller to withhold VIN information at any time.

Transferable registration
This is a transferable registration. Note the small size and relative lack of information. In spite of that, this is just as good as a title when transferring in most states. (A bill of sale sure does help, too!) Photo by Lemmy.

Now, if the bike appears to be clean and nice and the seller has you to his or her home, those are good signs. In some states, like New Hampshire and New York, bikes over a certain age don’t actually get titled. You’ll receive a transferable registration, which looks like a hokey little piece of paper, but it’s absolutely 100 percent legal. In that particular scenario, I say buy the bike — this is not a red flag at all. For the rest of the situations, where the seller should have a title and doesn’t? That’s a little more complex.

In nearly all states in the U.S.A., there are ways to obtain a legal title. They range from a titling service like Broadway Title, which starts out around $500, to doing the legwork yourself, which is usually just a nominal fee, but can often require a trip to see a judge. In this scenario, you do have to make sure the bike isn't stolen. That could be anything from “a few years” to “we still got that on file, and we want to talk about it.” If you’re satisfied that the bike is not hot (stolen), but instead just missing its paperwork, I would proceed with caution. For an old, rare or valuable bike, it can be worthwhile if you get a good enough deal, but usually these situations suck up a lot of time, phone calls, and legwork. At very least, make sure you get a bill of sale. If it’s notarized, all the better!

Floating title

You check out the bike, it looks good, and you’re ready to do the deal. The seller has a title, and it’s signed. The only rub is that it’s someone else’s name on there. Is this legit? Well, sort of. What the seller is doing is acting like a dealer. Rather than tie up time and money getting the correct paperwork, the seller never filled out the title and paid sales tax. People often do this when they know they’re going to “flip” a bike.

Floating title
See that white print telling the notary not to stamp this title if it's already signed? That's the state trying to make sure they don't get bilked out of their tax money by intrepid sellers "floating" a title. Photo by Lemmy.

For the most part, this is illegal if the seller is not a dealer, but probably not very immoral. The state gets screwed out of some revenue. There’s little chance of anything being shady here — if the bike was stolen, how the heck would the seller have also gotten the title? My advice in 97 percent of cases like this is to proceed as normal. (Of course, you can act concerned and see if you can chisel the price down some more!)

No numbers

Some states used to obliterate VINs when titling as Special Construction/SPCN/Self-Assembled. Some states would also obliterate VINs when a stolen bike was recovered. In both cases, I have seen state-assigned numbers stamped in or tagged, sometimes near the original VIN, sometimes in a totally separate area. If numbers have been removed and no legit numbers exist, the bike is very likely to be stolen. Avoid with extreme prejudice. Personally, I’d pass on these even if they were legitimately destroyed by the state. It screams “Stolen!” to a cop on the side of the road. I’m not saying they are stolen, I’m saying they look that way. This may be all the probable cause a cop needs to go on a fishing trip. Like our previous scenario, find a way to skip out on the sale other than blurting out “This is stolen!”

ZLA Bike Sales Crew
No matter how good the deal seems, make sure you're not buying a bike from these two jokers. RevZilla photo.

Knocked-over or “incorrect” numbers

This gets tricky. Usually “knocked over” (restamped) numbers or “number jobs” indicate a hot bike, but there are some legitimate cases of this occurring. There is also the matter of factory restamps. For instance, some Harleys were mis-stamped at the factory. Numbers were re-struck, and those are not stolen. There’s also the perfectly legitimate case of an indie shop or dealer restamping cases, which was common for years before the practice was outlawed. Here’s how that worked.

Some guy in 1955 brings in his Panhead to the local shop because he blew up the motor. The mechanic pulls a rebuilt Pan off the shelf, and stamps the customer’s number into it with a set of factory-issued stamps. They reinstall it, and away he goes the next day. Later, they rebuild the broken Panhead at their leisure, and grind the number off the VIN boss, ready to repeat the cycle.

Would I buy it? Ugh. Maybe, if the price was right. The issue (again) is running a set of numbers that looks highly suspicious to Smokey. On the side of the road, this isn’t likely to matter. Your local cop likely has no idea whether your font should have a particular type of serif. He’s probably blind to all but the most egregious of VIN-pad grinding. However, plainclothes cops trawl the lots at lots of events (coughAmericadecough) and there are plenty of biker-only “safety checks.” (Read: mandatory motorcycle stops where bikers get shaken down for a bullshit ticket in the name of “safety.”) This subset of the fuzz is often aware of what your bike's VIN should look like. Here, take a peek. This ain’t a new development. The scary part of this is that there are known errors in that booklet. In my mind, it’s easier to own something that conforms to what the fuzz thinks is correct.

Is it legit? Photo by Lance Oliver.

Bike improperly titled to frame or engine

OEM bikes can legally have the VIN in a number of spots: the frame, the engine, or a combination of the two. Different years have different rules for different manufacturers.

Years ago, aftermarket frames did not legally need numbers. Aftermarket engine cases, too. Later aftermarket frames were required to have numbers. Many people legally and illegally swapped engines into frames. Because of this, there are many bikes incorrectly registered.

What does all of this mean? Well, it means a few things. It means you should do your homework on what the bike’s numbers should look like, where they should be located, and what aberrations could exist. It also means that it’s possible for someone to legally create a bike with no numbers. Similarly, one can create a bike with bad numbers on one component and good numbers on another. (A stolen engine in a correctly titled frame is very likely to escape law enforcement’s eye.)

Let’s examine a situation I see commonly. Someone builds a cone-Shovel-powered chopper. The builder then incorrectly titles the bike to the engine (because they stuffed it into a frame with no numbers, and it’s not technically legal in that configuration). In some states, it’s totally possible (but not legal) to title a bike this way. The problem is that somewhere out in the world, that exact same VIN could be registered in a different state correctly, because that cone Shovel’s frame carried the same numbers in the proper location! Would I buy a bike like this? Only if I was parting it out. It’s not worth the hassle.

Bike title
Is that VIN correct? Title errors are why we encourage folks in our used bike buying guide to check — and double check — that the number on the bike is the same number that's on the title. Photo by Lemmy.

Title error

If a title has errors on it, life can get sticky. Perhaps the year is wrong. Perhaps the VIN has some transposed or incorrect numbers. Let me relate a couple of stories.

At some point in time, a friend bought an old Suzuki GS550 for next to nothing. It was not expensive because the title had mistakes. One of the 6’s on the title was actually a letter G, and another number was simply missing. The friend asked for advice. I told him to insure the bike with the VIN that was supposed to be correct, and smudge the title in a beneficial way. Then I sent him to the busiest DMV in the worst part of town that was constantly jammed with customers.  The clerk keyed the VIN in just like it should have been 20 years ago. Two wrongs in this case made a right. That’s a lot of luck to rely on, though.

Another scenario involved a friend who bought a 1945 Knucklehead that was built into a chopper in 1973. The bike was titled as a “1973 Chopper.” My friend went to transfer the title after he bought it, and the gal doing the paperwork asked him, “What kind of bike is this?” He told her it was a Harley-Davidson, and she titled it that way, but she didn’t change the year back to 1945. When the title came in the mail. It said “1973 Harley-Davidson,” which seemed good.

However, remember the previous scenario with title errors? The year never got changed, so the bike’s serial number, correctly stamped into the engine, looks to be phony now, because a bike titled for 1973 should have its numbers on the frame. (Harley did not put numbers onto frames in 1945.) This bike was legal and unstolen, but now looks fishy to law enforcement.

Would I buy a bike like this? If you flip vehicles regularly and are close with someone at the DMV, you can get a lot of this stuff rectified with a polite request and a few keystrokes. If not, it may require massive amounts of effort to have a title rectified. I’d probably take this on a case-by-case basis, and I’d haggle hard to make sure if I got tied up fixing it that it was worth my time.

Title or state-issued VIN tag only, no bike

Often sold as “historical documents,” titles are often sold solo. The problem is that you don’t know where the bike is, or if it was later titled on a duplicate title. The idea behind these is that someone is going to buy legal paper, (illegally) stamp the numbers into their bike, either “cleaning” a hot bike, or avoiding the hassle and financial resale penalty of obtaining a self-assembled title. Personally, I’d avoid this way of doing things.

An SPCN tag sold solo, however, is a different story. Your state may keep the paperwork on file from what components were used when the bike was first registered. They may not. Even if they do, self-assembled titles have been around for a long time. Components get replaced as they wear out.

I’ve seen less-than-scrupulous sellers sell just the VIN tag and the title, to be affixed to any bike of the buyer’s choice. Would I buy something like this? Yeah, I probably would. It’s not legal, but it’s also not immoral. It’s a shortcut to get a garage project off the bench and road legal. The likelihood of the bike being stolen is slim to none — you’re getting the VIN plate and the title. Of course, the bike’s value will not be as high as if it had a legitimate manufacturer’s title, but that only matters if you plan on selling.

There’s a few more ways sellers can be crooked, but these should cover 90 percent of ‘em. If you arm yourself with some street smarts, you’ll win every time. In the words of The Big Lebowski, “The bums will always lose, do you hear me, Lebowski? The bums will always lose!”