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An Epic Title Fight

by on August 11, 2020 5:00 AM

Two weeks ago I wrote about our family decision to sell our RV. We were lucky that a wonderful family found us, bought the RV and are giving it a great home with plans to use it well. We knew it was going into good hands when the daughter came along on the trip to take it home and immediately went in and hung little battery-powered light strings to decorate her bunk bed. 

However, as anyone in Pennsylvania who has personally sold a vehicle to another individual without dealer involvement knows, there are some legal hoops to jump through to consummate the sale, all of which are created by our wonderful Commonwealth. Most people will normally just go to any tag office where they will walk you through the necessary steps and paperwork – for a fee of course – which will in turn minimize your interactions with the state bureaucracy. 

And admittedly, because private vehicle sales occur every day all over Pennsylvania without any great public outcry, this process generally works well. As with most state government interactions it is normally painless other than the time, paperwork and monetary expense.

Except, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, “It all works well, right up until it doesn’t.”

Since that column two weeks ago, here are the lengths of the phone calls I made to PennDOT:

  • 31 minutes 46 seconds

  • 4 minutes 5 seconds

  • 36 minutes 29 seconds

  • 11 minutes 42 seconds

  • 27 minutes 40 seconds

One hour, 51 minutes and 42 seconds in total. In addition, my wife and I had to go to the main PennDOT office in Harrisburg, a four-hour round trip, plus $55 for a form we should have received for free.

The reason? Eleven years ago when we purchased the RV, PennDOT did not record a lien on it. Consequently when it was recently paid off and we expected the title in the mail – which should have been mailed the next business day according to PennDOT — they did not send us one, meaning we couldn’t finalize the sale of the RV until we got one. That was the reason for the voluminous calls and ultimately the road trip. First trying to find out if they mailed us a title, then why they weren’t mailing us a title, and finally how we could quickly get a title.

At this point I should mention that everyone I spoke to on the phone at PennDOT was courteous, friendly and kind. Plus our in-person experience was organized and we felt well taken care of pandemic-wise. PennDOT just wasn’t able to mail us the title because there was no lien in their system. Which, in theory, meant PennDOT should have mailed us the title 11 years before. And, in theory, we could have stopped making payments on the RV as well because we owned it as far as the state was concerned. But that’s going too far down the rabbit hole. 

Up to this point my story here has been a personal tale of bureaucratic woe. That’s something that apparently happens often enough that our local state senator, Majority Leader Jake Corman, lists it as the first thing his constituents can do for him on the “Constituent” page of his website: “When you encounter bureaucratic red tape and frustration, tell me about it.” I did – and his office was also quick to respond and look into this issue – but you know you’re deep in red tape when the majority leader of the state Senate can’t even get PennDOT to do something they’re supposed to do. 

But here’s where it might be important to you. 

In 2008 Pennsylvania switched to a statewide mandatory Electronic Lien and Title System (ELT) in an effort to “improve the delivery of driver and vehicle services and increase efficiency.” Under this system the state and lienholder are no longer passing paper titles back and forth on encumbered vehicles. No paper title is printed until the lien is released, or a paper title is needed to assign or transfer ownership of the vehicle. 

What that means in plain language to you and me is that when you finish paying off the loan on your vehicle, whoever you were paying – a bank, credit union, auto finance company – can immediately let PennDOT know electronically that you’ve paid the vehicle off and PennDOT will mail the title to you the next day. A process that in the past could have taken weeks now happens in days. That’s fantastic!

Except, as I pointed out, back in October 2009 when our bank (USAA) notified PennDOT that we were financing the RV through them, that information somehow did not get into or disappeared from the system. Because when we paid off the loan, we discovered there was never a lien in the system. Which, as I mentioned above, means as far as the state was concerned we already owned the RV. Whether this was a result of a glitch in the relatively new ELT system back then, or was something that could have happened as easily with the old system, we’ll likely never know. But it happened. 

In our household we’re used to being on the edge of the bell curve for all sorts of things – height, schooling choice, professions, fertility, child-raising methods, hair color, D-1 athletes, etc. So it stands to reason that we might be the only people in the entire state of Pennsylvania in the last decade whose lien was not properly assigned to their vehicle title. 

Or… maybe we’re not. 

I’m not suggesting that you take to the phones right now and call PennDOT to check if your title number shows a lien on it, especially since the wait times for their Customer Call Center are extremely long these days. The vast majority of those phone call times above were while I was on hold (tip: Wednesday and Friday mornings are the least busy). But some day in the future when this pandemic is over and wait times are non-existent, maybe it’s worth a few minutes of your day to see if you might already own your vehicle. At least according to the state!

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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