Thursday, May 26, 2011

Registering and Titling a Vintage (pre-1958) Vehicle in California

Registering an old vehicle in California is no problem if you are just buying a vehicle that is currently registered in California and you are just transferring the registration. But suppose you have found or bought an old vehicle that hasn't been registered in California for many years? Registering and titling such a vehicle can be complicated. I've registered and titled five vintage vehicles in the past 10 years and here are some tips.

- The vehicle must have been registered in California in the past. Note that the DMV won't have any records for a vehicle that has it's last California registration in the 50s. But they will ask where the vehicle is from, and it is important to let them know it was originally in California. Importing a vehicle from another state or country becomes a much bigger process, and may be impossible. It is much easier to register a vehicle that has been in California since new.

- A bill of sale. Make sure you have a bill of sale from the previous owner. This can be hand written but should include all the particulars, like the sellers name, your name and address, chassis and engine numbers price and date of sale. Note that the fees you will be charged are based on this price. Also note that the date is very important. The sales taxes and fees are due when the sale happens! So if you buy a vehicle, and then take years to restore it and then go to register it years after the sale, you will owe back fees and substantial penalties for not doing this right away after the sale.

- Bring a completed "Application for Title or Registration" form (get it on the web ahead of time). Note that the date the "vehicle was purchased on" will be the basis for your fees and penalties (if any). Note the form also requires the "date the vehicle entered or was first operated in California"; this was probably the year the vehicle was manufactured, if the vehicle was originally sold in California.

- You may also be requested to fill out a "Statement of the Facts" form. You might look at this form ahead of time, but I would not produce it unless the DMV requests it. Sometimes with an old vehicle that isn't in the DMV computers anymore, they will want you to state where you got the bike, what you paid for it and other things. Essentially they seem to use this form whenever they want to be reassured about a vehicle that they have doubts about. So they might ask you to use this form to declare the vehicle's history.

- If you have any outside documentation of the bike's year or year related to model number, like a book about your vehicle, bring it. Don't produce it unless they ask, but they might want proof your vehicle is really one manufactured in 1955 or is only 125cc or whatever. Usually this isn't necessary, but don't expect them to be able to tell a 1950s motorcycle from a 1970s one by just looking at it.

- Bring your proof of insurance, although it's not strictly necessary. It at least provides another document with your name attached to the vehicle.

- Never tell the DMV anything more than you have to and never give them any more paperwork than necessary. More information is just a source of possible confusion and problems. Really. You have old plates or an old out of state registration; hide them. This stuff is only possibly helpful if it is official California stuff, like an old California plate. But be aware they will take these from you and you will never see them again. These documents really don't help with the process.

- Lastly, make yourself a very friendly customer of the DMV. You want the DMV to help you and the only way to get that is to be very polite and respectful.

So now you are off to the DMV. Here are some tips for what happens at most California DMVs.

- First, plan on making 3 trips to the DMV, each taking two to four hours! With luck you can do this in one trip that only lasts an hour, but it really can take much longer if you are unlucky. You can book appointments on the web... but typically they are scheduled out weeks in the future. I suggest booking at least two appointments and you might even book them at different DMV offices.

- How the registration process goes at the DMV is very dependent on which DMV you go to and what individual you happen to end up working with. I've often had good results at small friendly DMV offices that are further away from the main population centers. But I have also had good luck at some giant DMVs where I am just one of the thousands and they just want to process the application and get you out of there. I will also note that I have had better luck with younger men at the DMV that with older men or women. Frankly, I think there is a better chance of a younger guy being a car fan who will try and help you. If you get a person who is just pushing paper and is a stickler for detail, or who maybe believes all old polluting noisy killer motorcycles should be off the road, things might go worse than you hope.

But here is an important note. Right at the beginning of the process, pay close attention to what is happening! Especially if you haven't been entered into the computer yet, you can always leave and come back another day or go to a different DMV. Just say you can't finish this right now, or have your cell phone ring with an emergency or you have to get back to work. Really, this is important, if things aren't going well and nothing is in the computer yet, find an excuse to leave and try again another day at another DMV.

Here is what typically happens at the DMV:

(a) You go to the DMV and get in the reception line. When you get to the front they ask you what you are there for and check your paperwork. You should only need your “Application for Title” at this point. In fact, don't let them see anything else. Typically they will give you a number and tell you to go wait. However, sometimes they will immediately suggest you get your vehicle verified (the verifier will use a "Verification of Vehicle" form). You might even ask, politely, if it's possible to do this first as it will save you some waiting. Skip to (c) if you get to go directly to verification.

(b) Take you number and wait. Eventually you will get called up and you present your "Application for Title or Registration" and your bill of sale. Say as little as possible, but be friendly. Really, answer the questions with as few words as possible. Typically they will give you everything back and send you to get the vehicle verified. Sometimes they will also give you a statement of the facts form and tell you to fill it out. This can happily fill your time while you wait for the verification. Note that at this point, usually no one has entered any info about your application in the computer. If things aren't going well you can leave and try again later or at another DMV, so don't make a ruckus about problems. Example problems: They want more proof the vehicle was originally registered in California. Or they are confused by the short VIN on your vehicle. (Two of my bikes have 3 digit chassis numbers! Once they said my bike was already registered as a trailer! A friendly competent DMV clerk won't have any trouble with these items.) Or maybe they aren't convinced your bike is really as old as it is. Whatever the problem consider that you could just politely leave and come back another day to another DMV office.

(c) Verification. Make sure you don't have any old plates or stickers from other states or racing numbers on the vehicle. You don't want any potential for confusion about the history and use of the bike. A person comes over with a clipboard and a the “Verification of Vehicle" form. You are not allowed to enter anything on this form, so don't try. Typically the friendly DMV person will chat with you about the bike, and ask you to point out the chassis number (VIN) and engine number. It can be very useful to mention all the time and effort you spent restoring the bike at this point. One thing this inspection is about is catching stolen vehicles, so you want to be clear about how you properly and legally own the vehicle. They will also ask you the year and model and displacement. They might ask to see proof of the displacement (is it marked on the engine?). I have had these guys ask for proof of the year of manufacture, so a book with that stuff or even a printout of a web page can be handy (but I've also had them just let this go). If you are lucky, that's all that happens and they finish the form, sign it, and send you back to the DMV line to get a number. Be sure you verify that everything on the form is correct before you leave! Chassis and engine numbers can be hard to read and vehicles can have unusually spelled manufacturers. You really don't want any errors on this form.

However, I've also had this verification process go badly, where the DMV person is flustered by the short chassis number and the lack of emissions stickers and other documentation. In this case they might write a bunch of stuff on your form and check a box on the form that says "DO NOT PROCESS- REFER TO CHP". Then they usually give you this form. If this happens you go back in the DMV wait in line and they will give you some paper work and send you to the California Highway patrol for the vehicle to be checked and verified. In my experience the CHP are friendly guys who will check the bike out, check the VIN so they are sure the bike isn't stolen and will sign you off. Of course, you should trailer the vehicle the the CHP. But another approach (if you are personally holding the verification form and nothing has been entered in the DMV computers yet) is to go home, discard that paperwork and to start all over at another DMV! It's up to you and what you think will be less hassle. Really, I have had completely incompetent inspectors fuss about the short chassis number and lack of documentation, and gone to another DMV and just zipped right through. I'm not advising any cheating on this process, I'm just pointing out that the process varies. And no one has told me I can't just start over at another DMV.
(Note on later bikes: for bikes manufactured 1970? or later, the California DMV does require the Federal Certification Label to be on the bike! If this label is missing you will need an additional CHP inspection to verify the VIN. Or you might just get a new Federal Certification label before your inspection.)

(d) With the verification complete you are now back in the DMV waiting for your number to be called. Make sure you are happy with your forms, because this time they will be putting everything in the computer: You don't want any errors in any of the information. When you get to the clerk, you present your "Application for Title or Registration", your Bill of Sale and your completed "Verification of Vehicle" form. You might also have to do that "Statement of the Facts" form mentioned earlier. If all your forms are clean, things should go smoothly now. They might have some trouble with your unusual VIN, sometimes these can come up as another vehicle in their computer. But if your VIN clearly isn't that other vehicle, they can handle this. Sometimes they spend a lot of time typing and staring at the screen. I suggest you keep quiet. But if you must talk, mentioning your restoration effort on the vehicle shouldn't hurt. If they look really peculiar, you might ask what is going on. But generally realize they are playing with funny forms and your silly old VIN etc. Then they will ask you to pay. And they will give you your new registration! NOW IS THE TIME TO CHECK IT CAREFULLY! Catch any errors in the year, make, plate number name or address right now. You really don't want to have to do this all over. Also verify that they will be sending you the title in a couple weeks. And at some DMVs you have to go to another window to get your plate and stickers.

With some luck you should be done! And if you are really luck you got it all done in a couple hours in one visit. I wish I could say it was usually that easy, but it usually takes me two or three visits.