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  • State Regulations in Wisconsin

    Buying a new or used car is not just an investment for many people; it's a big deal, a large transaction, and an exciting time. Americans rely on motor vehicles to safely transport us to and from work and to carry our families in comfort and care.

    Read the Safety Record

    As much as we want to enjoy our vehicles, it's important to remember that safety should be the top priority. When the weather turns stormy and the snow piles up, it's much more important to arrive safely and warmly than it is to have a built-in DVD player.

    There are lots of cars that are safe and reliable; unfortunately, there are more than a few clunkers out there, too, sporting a nice paint job and a few extra dazzling goodies. With the winter weather in Wisconsin, reliability is important. Getting stalled or breaking down in late January can be more than just an inconvenience, it can be deadly.

    If you're buying a vehicle from an individual, it's especially important for you to look into a vehicle history report.

    Learning What to Look For

    The first, foremost, and best advice to remember when car shopping is to buy from a reputable dealer.

    That does not mean that you can't get a good, safe car from a private party―you can. But, before you hand over the money, be sure to have it examined by a reputable mechanic. It may cost you a few bucks, but in the end, it will be worth every penny.

    Remain detached. No matter how sweet the ride looks or feels. Think, at least right now, of safe and reliable transportation that will continue to run well when the weather gets cold.

    Transfer the Title and Register the Vehicle

    This is the two-part procedure that must be done with any vehicle sold in Wisconsin, and it must be done immediately. The title transfer is the official change of ownership from the seller to the buyer. The registration is the purchase of license plates and the annual renewal of the plates.

    Title Transfer

    The title transfer means that the legal owner and responsible party switches from the seller to the buyer. A title transfer is a one-time transaction, done when a vehicle is bought or sold.

    You may choose to add another owner to your title, or, if you secure a loan and use the vehicle as collateral, you may enter a lien on the title. Once any loans are paid off, you may request a replacement title be issued with the lienholder omitted.

    Vehicle Registration

    Registering a vehicle is the transaction that makes the vehicle legal with the state of Wisconsin. Registration prices vary depending on the vehicle, so be sure to verify your fees before heading out.

    You must also purchase license plates for the vehicle if you do not already own license plates. If you have ordered specialty or personalized plates, you may purchase temporary plates from the DMV or from one of these private agencies authorized to issued temporary license plates.

    If you live in any of the following counties you will need to have the vehicle's emissions tested:

    • Kenosha
    • Milwaukee
    • Ozaukee
    • Racine
    • Sheboygan
    • Washington
    • Waukesha

    This is required of all motor vehicles that are more than 5 years old based on the model year. If the emissions test is required, it is the responsibility of the seller to take care of the testing within 45 days unless the vehicle already passed within 180 days before the sale. Required inspections are free, and you'll get a certificate if the vehicle passes. 

    Where to Title and Register

    If you purchase a vehicle from a private party, you are required to take the paperwork into the DMV. If you purchase a new or used vehicle from a dealership, the dealership usually handles the paperwork for you. Most motor vehicle registration renewals can be taken care of by U.S. mail and renewal can be done online.

    It's All In the Paperwork

    When you are buying or selling a used vehicle, the most important thing to remember, after the safety and mechanical concerns, is that of a clear title.

    Before you give the seller any type of payment, be sure that all of the paperwork is in order. Here are the three biggest things to look for:

    • A Bill of Sale or other documents showing the purchase price of the vehicle, signed by both buyer and seller.
    • The Certificate of Title, signed in the proper place by the seller, with the correct odometer reading entered in the available box on the title certificate.
    • If there is a lien showing on the title and it is not stamped "paid" and signed by the loan company, do not pay the seller until the release can be proven.

    In some cases, the title may not have been available at the time it was paid off. In that case, a letter would have been prepared on the loan company letterhead with detailed information about the loan and the vehicle. If the seller cannot produce any information about the finalization of the loan, you will not be permitted to transfer the title or register the vehicle.

    After You Register

    Once you have filed paperwork with the DMV, paid all of the necessary fees, and been issued your temporary license plates, the DMV will send the title and license plates to you in the mail. You will also receive notice from the DMV by mail when it comes time to renew your registration in a year.

    Buying or Selling a Car Without a Title

    You cannot sell a vehicle without a title. Responsibility falls on the seller for obtaining a title, regardless of whether he or she has ever driven the vehicle.

    Before initiating a sale, the seller must complete a Replacement Title Application (Form MV2119) and pay a $20 fee to replace a lost title by mail. You can also request a replacement title online for an additional $.50 convenience fee. You should receive the new title within  10 business days.

    To request a lost title in person, you will have to pay a $5 service fee; however, you will receive the new title while you wait.

    Buying or Selling a Car Without Registration

    A vehicle does not have to be registered to be sold. If you're the buyer, you will need to obtain either temporary or permanent license plates within 2 days of purchasing the car. You can do this at any DMV office. Temporary plates cost $3, plus additional application fees and service fees.

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