Car Repossession Laws in California

What you need to know about vehicle repossession laws in California.

By , Attorney

In California, if you default on your car loan, you aren't entitled to notice before a repossession agent takes your car. As soon as you miss a car payment, the lender can arrange to have your car repossessed—the lender doesn't need to get your permission or to tell you in advance. The lender may also repossess the car if you breach the loan agreement in some other way, like by letting the insurance lapse. (Cal. Com. Code § 9609).

But after the repossession, you're entitled to several written notices, including one about how you can get the vehicle back. Also, the repossession agent can't do certain things when taking your car.

What a Repossession Agent May Do in California

In California, the lender (or an employee of the repossession agency) can take a vehicle from any publicly accessible place, including your unsecured driveway, the street, a parking lot, or another publicly accessible area. But it can't enter a private building or secured area, such as your locked garage unless it gets permission from you or another person in lawful control of the property. So, a repossessor may enter a parking lot, garage, or gated community that's open to the public, even if privately owned, to repossess a vehicle.

Also, a repossession agent can repossess your vehicle whether or not you're present.

What a Repossession Agent Can't Do in California

A repossession agent can't, however, breach the peace by threatening you, using violence, or damaging your personal property, among other things, when taking the car. (Cal. Com. Code § 9609).

In most cases, once the car is repossessed, the lender will sell it either at auction or through a private sale, often to a used-car dealer.

Notices You'll Get

Under California law, the lender has to send you the following notices after repossessing your car:

  • a notice about the seizure
  • an inventory of your personal effects, and
  • a notice about your right to get the back through reinstatement or redemption.

Deficiency After Car Repossession

Once the lender repossesses your car, it can sell the vehicle to recoup some of the money you owe. If the sale proceeds aren't enough to cover your unpaid loan balance plus the lender's costs, you'll owe the difference—called a "deficiency."

The lender might then send letters, make collection calls, or file a lawsuit to recover the deficiency.

Talk to an Attorney

If you think your car-loan lender didn't comply with California law when repossessing your vehicle and you want the vehicle back, talk to a lawyer right away. A lawyer can help you raise the issue either directly to the lender or help you file a lawsuit in court.

Also, you might want to consider talking to a lawyer if the lender sues you for a deficiency. To find out when hiring an attorney might be a good idea—and when you might not need one— in a deficiency suit, read Should I Hire a Lawyer if My Car Lender Sues Me After Repossessing My Car?

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