If your car is repossessed and you have personal belongings in the car, what happens to that property? When a car loan lender repossesses your car, it doesn't have a right to any personal property you have inside the car. That means you have a right to get your personal belongings back.
If you default on your car loan, the car loan lender has the right to repossess and sell your car because your car is the collateral for the loan. (To learn basic information about car repossessions, including how they work, how to avoid them, and your options if it happens to your car, see Car Repossession Laws: An Overview.)
However, unless the loan papers you signed state otherwise, the creditor does not have a right to keep or sell any other property. The creditor must also use reasonable care to prevent others from causing loss or damage to your property. But this right is not without some limits.
Lender must return loose items. The car loan lender must preserve and return loose items such as clothing, tools, jewelry, and cell phones.
Lender does not have to uninstall and return fixtures. Usually, however, the creditor does not have to return any fixtures, customizations, or improvements you made to the car. For instance, the creditor does not have to disassemble and return stereos, sounds systems, tire rims or GPS devices that were installed on the car. If tools are required to uninstall your property, you may not be able to get it back. Instead, the creditor can sell the car with those fixtures.
In most states, creditors cannot charge you a fee for storing or returning your personal property. Creditors usually only have a right to charge you storage fees pertaining to the car itself. This means that the repo agent hired by a creditor to take the car also cannot charge you money or a “convenience fee” to let you get your things back before the car is towed away. (Learn about options to avoid car repossession in the first place.)
Here are some ways to get your things back.
Get your things while the repo agent is present. If you are present during the repossession, the repo agent should allow you the opportunity to get into the car to get your things. If the agent does not offer you a chance to get your things, you should ask to do so right away.
State laws requiring notice or the right to inspection. If you are unable to retrieve your property before the creditor or repo agent takes your car, you still have other methods to get your things back. In some states, the creditor must send you a written notice and inventory of the property found in the car within a certain time frame, such as 48 hours of taking the car. Creditors may also have to give you an opportunity to inspect the car at the storage facility and retrieve your property before it is auctioned or sold.
Check your car loan contract. You should also read your loan agreement. The loan agreement may state that you have a limited amount of time, such as 24 hours, to contact the creditor and make arrangements to get your property back.
Contact the creditor immediately. Most importantly, you should contact the creditor right away. Do not wait for the creditor to send you a notice. Also make sure to document your communications with the creditor and keep your own written inventory and, preferably, photographs of any personal items you keep in the car.
If the creditor refuses to cooperate in returning the property, or if the property is missing or damaged, you may have a claim against the creditor. In some instances, it may be a crime for a creditor to wrongfully keep and sell your property. You should contact your state attorney general office or state consumer protection agency (see State Consumer Protection Offices to find yours), or consult with a local attorney.