How Motor Vehicles Are Repossessed

Learn what the repo man can and can't do when repossessing your car.

If you default on your car payments, lenders aren't shy about repossessing your motor vehicle, especially if it’s still pretty new. In some states, however, the lender must first send you notice of the default and give you the right to make up the payments—called a right to “cure”—before repossessing your car. (To learn the basics of property repossessions, including what it means to cure the default, see Repossession: When Can a Creditor Take Your Property?)

Here's what the repo man can and can't do when attempting to repossess your car, van, truck, SUV, motorcycle, or other vehicle.

Repossessor Can't Breach the Peace

A repossession company generally can’t use force to get to your vehicle—repossessions must occur without any breach of the peace. Unfortunately, “breach of the peace” is defined very broadly.

  • It’s usually legal for a repossessor to hotwire a car.
  • It’s legal to use a duplicate key and take a car.
  • Most courts have said it’s legal to remove a car from a carport or an open garage (meaning the door is up).
  • In most states, it’s legal to take a car from a garage if the door is closed but unlocked, but a few cautious repossessors won’t do this.
  • It’s generally illegal to break into a locked garage, even by using a duplicate key. But a repossessor might anyway, especially in parts of the country where the repossession won’t be nullified and all the lender will be required to do is fix the lock.

How the Repo Man Finds Your Car

To take your car, the repossession company will have to find it. The lender will supply the repossessor with your home and work addresses, and any other useful information (such as where you attend school). Many vehicle purchase and lease agreements today authorize the lessor to use the vehicle’s electronic locating device to locate the vehicle. If the repossessor finds the car in your driveway or on the street in front of your house, the repossessor will wait until you’re asleep or out, use a master key or hotwire it, and then drive away.

If the car isn’t near your house, the repossessor will search the neighborhood. Many debtors, fearful of having their car repossessed, park it about three blocks from their home. This is the distance they figure is far enough away to be hard to find, but close enough to still be convenient to use. Repossessors know this trick, however, and often find a car within ten minutes. If you hide your car and a court finds that you acted in bad faith, you may lose your right to get the car back if and when it’s finally found. And in some states, deliberately hiding your car from a repossession company is a crime.

Objecting to the Repossession

The repossession company does not have unlimited power to take your car. If you or someone else, like a relative, objects at the time the repossessor tries to take your car, so that taking the car would breach the peace, he or she must stop.

However, this doesn’t mean you get to keep your car. The repossessor can try again another day or get a court order to take the car. A word of warning—over the past several years, some consumers and agents attempting to repossess cars have reportedly been injured or killed, and children have been hauled away when the car was repossessed. Don’t put yourself or others in danger just to keep your car. No car is worth an altercation that could escalate to physical harm. (Learn about options to avoid a car repossession.)

To learn what happens after a car repossession, see Deficiency Balances After Repossession and Can I Get My Repossessed Car Back?

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