When Is a Car Considered Abandoned?

Abandoned cars pop up more than you realize, especially in areas with expansive forests and dense populations. Some drivers even abandon their vehicles on public roads. Though in most cases, the owner doesn’t want the automobile anymore, it’s never a good idea to claim an abandoned car for yourself.

For one thing, the vehicle could be stolen. Additionally, you won’t have access to the title without alerting the proper authorities first. And the car might not even be considered abandoned under state laws.

How does a vehicle become abandoned?

Abandoned car; car abandoned
An abandoned car after a February 2011 snowstorm in Iowa City | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When a driver leaves a vehicle on someone else’s property or in a public area without notice, it’s generally considered abandoned. Cars on the side of the road without a note or other indication the driver hasn’t ditched them — such as a white bag or towel — have usually been abandoned. It’s also not uncommon for abandoned cars to sit in business parking lots for several weeks.

In addition, it’s possible you could inherit an abandoned car when you move into a new home. If there’s an abandoned vehicle on the land, the car is sold with the property. Likewise, if you inherit a home with an abandoned car in the driveway, that vehicle is probably yours, Dirt Legal reports.

Each U.S. state has different rules regarding abandoned cars

In some states, you can’t always claim an abandoned vehicle right away. For instance, in Florida, a vehicle isn’t considered abandoned unless it’s been left alone for 35 consecutive hours. Afterward, a thorough police investigation attempts to find the owner. If the owner can’t be located or relinquishes ownership of the car, you can take possession.

In most areas of New York, a car isn’t considered abandoned until 96 hours have passed. However, according to the New York City government website, you can report an abandoned vehicle after just 48 hours.

In California, abandoned vehicle laws can also differ in each city. For example, in Santa Cruz, a vehicle is considered abandoned after it’s been parked in the same place for 72 hours. In Pacific Grove, an abandoned vehicle only needs to be in “inoperable or neglected condition,” with no specified time limit.

And in Texas, an abandoned vehicle must be left sitting on public or private property for over 48 hours. If left on public property, the car also must be over five years old and inoperable. If left abandoned on a controlled-access highway, it could be considered abandoned after 24 hours.

What to do if you find an abandoned car

Call the local authorities if you find an abandoned car on your property. For an abandoned vehicle on public property, don’t report it unless you’re sure the owner won’t return for the car. If it’s on private property, notify the property’s owner before taking matters into your own hands.

Because abandoned vehicle removal and ownership laws vary by state, don’t attempt to drive an abandoned car or move it yourself. For instance, in California, it’s against the law for anyone to remove an abandoned vehicle unless they’re a peace officer or vehicle abatement officer. Every state also has a different process you must follow to claim ownership of an abandoned vehicle

If you see a rusted-out car, don’t assume it’s yours for the taking. It’s still on someone’s property, so you could get fined for theft or trespassing. However, the owner might be willing to sell the title if you express interest.

And if the property itself is also abandoned, you still can’t claim any cars it might contain. You’re better off researching public records or performing a VIN check. Because contacting an abandoned vehicle’s owner is also prohibited in some states, always check your local regulations before proceeding.

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