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Updated on Thursday, June 23, 2016
For the most part, you will know ahead of time when a car repossession is on the horizon. But, even when you have an inkling your car is about to get taken away, walking outside to find it missing is upsetting.
A car repo can jeopardize your mobility long-term. And if you don’t have access to public transportation or a friend to give you a lift, having no car to get to and from work could mean you’ll lose your job, which triggers other financial issues. If your car has been repossessed (or it’s a possibility it will happen soon) here’s what you need to know and the options for getting it back.
Step 1: Take a Record of Any Property Damage
There are laws in place to protect you when a repo company comes for the car. They can’t disturb the peace, use excessive force, damage your property or cause you harm in the process.
If you believe the repossession happened aggressively, you may have a case for reimbursement of damage or the return of your car. The repo agency may also get hit with a penalty for their actions. Take photos of the damage as a backup and get a second opinion from an attorney.
You should also have a record of what the car looks like and any damages before it’s repossessed. Otherwise, could turn into a bit of a “he said, she said” debate.
Step 2: Find Out Why Your Car Was Taken
Technically, a car isn’t “yours” until you pay off the car note. If you default, in most states the company financing your car has the right to take it back without warning you. The same applies if you’re leasing a car. Miss a few payments and the lessor can take back the property.
When a repo occurs, contact the creditor as soon as possible. Unlike when a contractor tows your car for minor offenses like unpaid parking tickets, after a repo, your car doesn’t wait patiently on a lot until you bring your bills current. The car can be sold to recover the financial loss.
Fortunately, many states require that you’re notified of the pending auction or sale of your vehicle beforehand, so you have a reasonable time to act. Ahead of the sale, you may be able to reinstate the auto loan, pay off the loan entirely or buy the car back. We’ll talk about each option for reclaiming your car in the next section.
Besides defaulting on a loan, in some states, your car may be repossessed when your insurance lapses. If you’ve stopped paying your car insurance, find out from your creditor or DMV if that’s the reason your car is missing and ask what the penalties are for not keeping insurance.
Step 3: Explore Options to Reclaim the Car
The rules for getting your car back when your payments are in default vary by state and contract, but according to the Federal Trade Commission, there are generally three options to discuss:
Reinstate Your Auto Loan: This will probably be the most affordable and less cumbersome option if it’s available to you. Reinstating the loan is when you pay the amount you’re behind plus all of the fees associated with the repossession including towing and storage to get it back.
Redeem Your Car: Redeeming the car means paying off the entire balance of the loan to get your car back. Going this route may not be feasible or smart if your car is worth less than you owe. Besides the entire loan amount, you’re also on the hook for the repossession fees.
Buy Your Car Back: Again, this option may not be possible if you’re having a hard time just making car payments. When you get the date and time of the auction your car will be in, you can attend and try to buy it back.
Step 4: Decide if You Can Afford to Get the Car Back
After going through each of your options, you may find you’re not financially stable enough to retrieve your car. Even in the best case scenario of reinstating your loan, you’ll need to have the means to make regular payments and maintain the car. If you can’t handle it, you may have to let the car go. There are some financial implications when giving up on the car as well.
When a creditor sells your car, it has to make a reasonable effort to get a fair market price for it. If the fair market price is less than how much you owe, you can be sued for deficiency; the difference between how much you owe and how much the car sells for.
Fortunately, if the car sells for more than what you owe, you also get to pocket the difference. You should get a notification of whatever you owe or if money is owed to you. Follow up on the resale yourself if you don’t. Unpaid deficiency can end up in collections.
Lastly, if you plan to wash your hands of the car loan, you could be in a deep financial hole all the way around and in the process of filing bankruptcy. If so, you may be able to include the car in the agreement and get it back. In this case, contact the attorney handling your bankruptcy right away.
Step 5: Get Your Belongings
Regardless of how you intend to resolve the repossession, you’re entitled to all of your belongings in the car. Whoever has your car should make a reasonable effort to protect your belongings from damage and theft. It’s a good practice to not leave any valuables in the car if you’re on the verge of repossession to avoid theft or damage.
Often, you’ll be contacted with the location where you can pick your stuff up. If you find anything missing or damaged, take notes. You may be able to reduce your deficiency bill with proof that you experienced property loss.
Final Word: Act early
If you know making future car payments is going to be a struggle, you’ll benefit the most from acting early to avoid the costs of repossession. Here are a few steps you may be able to take:
- Negotiate: If you’re going through a temporary hardship, you may be able to work out a short-term deal of reduced or excused late auto payments. You won’t know unless you ask. Be sure to get any form of agreement in writing.
- Sell your car: Selling a car with a lien can be difficult, but not impossible. Once sold use public transportation or a carpool for the time being.
- Refinance the loan: You may be able to refinance to a lesser monthly payment before things go south. Keep in mind, refinancing may come with processing fees and other costs, so you need to factor them into the equation.
- Surrender the car yourself: If you’re already in default and know the repossession is coming, you can give up the car on your own terms. No dramatic car tow scene necessary and you can clear the car of your belongings. Then if you decide to redeem your car or reinstate the loan, you won’t have to pay some of the repossession fees.
Having your car repossessed is scary, but even when you hit rock bottom, there are solutions. If you put aside the emotions and think logically, you can recover. Your best move is to prevent it and keep the lines of communication open with the company servicing your auto loan.
If it’s too late for that, your main choices (depending on your contract and state) are to bring the loan back current and fork up repossession costs, pay-off the loan, buy the car back or give up the car entirely.