Whether you've just bought a car or have owned the same vehicle for years, you likely have a lot of papers to keep track of regarding your vehicle. Some of these papers document the purchase, ownership and registration of your car, while others show that you can legally drive the car and have insurance coverage in case you get into an accident. While you'll only need to present some of these papers during specific transactions, there are others you always need to have on you. Take a look at this guide to the most common documents you'll deal with for motor vehicles.
Proof of Vehicle Registration
Any vehicle that you have needs to get registered through the department of motor vehicles (DMV) in your state. You'll go through a renewal process every year or two after the initial registration, and this can lead to a few important items: a license plate, registration card and license plate sticker. You'll need to keep the registration card in your car's glove box since you'll need it to prove that you've registered the vehicle in situations such as traffic stops.
The registration card shows your contact information plus vehicle details such as the vehicle identification number (VIN), title number, registration expiration date and license plate number. If you lose the card, your state will have ways to request either a temporary or permanent replacement. Getting a replacement will require you to provide information such as your car's registration number or license plate number as well as likely pay a fee. Some states let you do this online so you can avoid a trip to the DMV.
Purchase Agreement/Bill of Sale
Depending on whether you're buying a new or used car, you'll either receive a purchase agreement or bill of sale. This document is very important since you might need it for the car registration process as well as for your own records. Private sellers usually fill out a bill of sale for used cars, while dealerships usually use a purchase agreement for vehicle sales.
Both documents contain similar information documenting the vehicle sold, its price and information for the buyer and seller. For example, the documents should list the car's VIN, mileage and signatures for the buyer and seller. A purchase agreement usually also contains information about the lienholder if the buyer uses a car loan, while a bill of sale will include any conditions for the sale such as whether the vehicle is a gift. You should ask the seller if you ever need a replacement for this document.
Read More: What to Disclose When You Sell a Car
Odometer Disclosure Statement
Whenever a vehicle's ownership changes, you'll come across another document the DMV will usually require along with papers documenting the vehicle sale. The odometer disclosure statement is a federally mandated document that lists the number of miles the car has at the time of transfer and certifies that the number is accurate. However, if the car sold has a weight of over 16,000 pounds or is more than 20 years old, then federal law waives the requirement for this document.
When required, the seller obtains the state-specific version of this form from the DMV and fills out the mileage alongside the car's description, VIN and information for the transferor and transferee. Both parties will sign the odometer disclosure statement, and the form gets presented at the DMV during the transfer of ownership process.
Valid Driver's License
While it's not exactly a paper, you'll need to have a valid driver's license to use your car. This card shows your picture, personal information, driver's license number and class and the license's expiration date. It also lists any restrictions you might have like needing to wear glasses or contacts or not being authorized for night driving.
If you don't carry your license with you when driving or you drive with an expired or revoked license on hand, you can face penalties ranging from simple fines to criminal charges. Therefore, it's important to follow your state's process for obtaining a driver's license and renewing it based on the interval set.
You can check your state's DMV website or visit a local DMV office to request a replacement driver's license if you end up losing yours. You can do the same to renew a license that is expiring or has expired, but you might need to complete extra steps like retaking the driver's test if it expired many months ago.
Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin
Whenever you buy a new vehicle from a car dealership, you might deal with an additional paper called the manufacturer's certificate of origin. As with a vehicle title, it helps establish proof of ownership – along with the purchase paperwork – for when you go to register the car. The manufacturer creates this document to certify that it created the car and transferred it to the dealership.
Your car's manufacturer's certificate of origin will bear the logo of the manufacturer along with their signature and certification. It will also show your car's VIN, invoice number, shipping weight and a description including the body type, year, make, model and number of engine cylinders.
In many cases, you won't see the document since dealerships often handle the new car registration process for you and send the relevant state agency the certificate of origin along with the purchasing paperwork. If you ever need a copy, though, you should first check with the dealership and then possibly follow up with the manufacturer.
Proof of Current Car Insurance
The Insurance Information Institute (III) explains that most states require you to carry at least a liability policy for a minimum amount, although a few states let you instead show proof of having personal funds to cover potential damages. So, if you get stopped for a traffic violation, have an accident or go to register your car, you'll usually need to show proof – usually in the form of a card – that you have an active car insurance policy.
Your insurance card will contain information such as your VIN, policy dates, name, vehicle model and make and the contact details for the insurer. Your insurance company should send you a new car insurance card with each policy renewal. You can also request a duplicate to get mailed from the insurance company, print one off the online portal or even use an electronic car insurance card in most states.
Depending on your state, you may get to use alternative documents that can verify you have a car insurance policy. For example, Georgia accepts a recent bill of sale or rental agreement containing insurance information.
Vehicle Emissions Inspection Report
Depending on your state's laws, you might need to have a paper that shows that your vehicle has undergone an emissions inspection to determine it meets the environmental requirements set. This requires you to go to a vehicle inspection center for testing and receive a paper that you'll take to the DMV for vehicle registrations and renewals. If your car can't pass the inspection, you have to get it repaired to meet the standards before you can complete the DMV transaction.
Do know that you might not always need this paper even if your state does require it since there are often exceptions for certain vehicles, especially those that are five years old or newer You can usually avoid the inspection if you have an electric vehicle, and states often don't require an inspection for gas-powered cars from the 1970s and older.
Motor Vehicle Title
While the vehicle registration card shows that you followed your state's proper procedures for registering the car, the vehicle title shows who has ownership. You'll need this document if you ever plan to sell or give away the car, since state DMVs require a clean title for such transactions. This paper has information such as the lienholder's name, the current and past owners' contact details plus several vehicle details like the mileage, VIN and model.
Depending on your state and method used for paying for the vehicle, you might not have this document in your possession. For example, if you financed the car, the lender might have the title until you've paid off the loan and gone through the DMV's process for removing the lender from the title. You can often get a copy of the title from your county's title office by mail or in person if necessary, and some states have an online system for doing so.
Vehicle Owner's Manual
While you don't legally need to have this item in your car like you would your registration card, your vehicle owner's manual provides a lot of valuable information, so you should try to keep it in your glove box if possible. This document will educate you on how to use your car's different controls and systems, what kind of maintenance you need and how often and what the various warning lights mean that you see on your dashboard. You'll also find helpful tips for troubleshooting your car plus details about its included warranty and basic driving advice.
If you bought a new car, the dealership should hand you the owner's manual or already have it in the glove box. You might need to do some extra work to get the owner's manual if you've got a used car or you've lost the original. Luckily, you can often find a digital copy online, ask the dealership if they have any extras or order one through the manufacturer or car repair websites. If you need a really old owner's manual, you might have luck through auction sites like eBay.
Extended Car Warranty Paperwork
Along with receiving the standard warranty coverage from your car manufacturer, you might purchase an extended warranty that fills in some gaps or extends your coverage for a few years after the original warranty expires. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) mentions that the contract you sign for an extended warranty can include several exclusions and terms you need to follow for the warranty to remain valid. There will also be specific steps to follow so that you get reimbursed when you need work done.
Therefore, you should keep the extended car warranty contract and any additional papers received with you so that you have proof you bought the coverage and a reference to the details for the program. Your contract will also show details like the term's expiration date, level of coverage and any add-ons you chose for things like keying services and cosmetic defects.
Read More: What Does a Bumper-to-Bumper Warranty on a Car Mean?
- Insurance Information Institute: Is It Legal To Drive Without Insurance?
- Georgia Department of Revenue: Acceptable Proof of Insurance
- New York State Department of Motor Vehicles: How to Replace a Registration
- Hanscom Federal Credit Union: Purchase Agreement
- California DMV: Bill of Sale
- Ohio Department of Public Safety: Odometer Disclosure Statement
- FindLaw: Driving Without a License
- Pennsylvania DMV: Get a Driver's License
- CA DMV: Smog Inspections
- West Virginia: Titles
- DRiV: Get to Know Your Vehicle – Read the Manual
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Ashley Donohoe has written about business and technology topics since 2010. Having a Master of Business Administration degree, bookkeeping certification and experience running a small business and doing tax returns, she is knowledgeable about the tax issues individuals and businesses face. Other places featuring her business writing include Zacks, JobHero, LoveToKnow, Bizfluent, Chron and Study.com.