Your personal belongings are your personal belongings. If a repo company took your car, you have the right to get these belongings back without having to pay a fee.
You have the right to get your items back even after your car is repossessed. You also have options with the vehicle itself. You can try to get the car back by paying off the amount due, making a new loan agreement with the lender to continue paying for the car, or filing for bankruptcy to get rid of the debt.
You Have A Right to Your Personal Belongings
Many people need to take out a loan to buy a car or truck because they can’t afford to buy it outright. While it's common for people to believe that “the bank” owns their car, this is not true. If your name appears on the title as the owner, you and anyone else on the title with you own the car.
What the lender or finance company does have is a security interest in the car while you owe them money on the loan as a borrower. The finance company’s name and address will appear on the car’s title as a “lienholder.” If you don’t make regular payments to the lender or miss even one payment in some states, they have the right to take the car back from you.
The lender hires a company to repossess (or “repo”) the car. If a repossession company comes and takes away your car, any personal belongings or loose items in the car when it's repossessed will go away with the car. Repo men like to work quickly when taking a car, often at night, and they will not take the extra time to remove your personal property before driving the car away.
If you do catch a repo company in the act of repossessing your car, you may ask if you can remove your personal items. They may allow you to do so, but you should never be aggressive or violent if they refuse, as you can be charged with a crime like breach of the peace.
While the finance company has the right to repossess your car if you haven’t made payment under the borrower agreement, they do not have the right to keep anything other than the car itself. The lender must return your personal belongings to you after they repossess your car.
If your car is repossessed, you will receive a written notice from the finance company telling you which company has your car, along with their phone number and address. You should contact that company right away to arrange to get your personal property back. Be aware that you will generally not be allowed to take away items attached to the car, including:
Only loose personal items or items easily removed, such as child car seats, can be retrieved.
The repossession company can’t make you pay a collection fee or a storage fee to get your personal belongings back. They also have to be reasonable about arranging a time for you to get your belongings. A repo agency can only charge you a storage fee for your personal items if you don’t collect them right away and instead wait several weeks. That is why it's important to contact the repo agent immediately after you receive a repossession notice.
Even though you have a right to retrieve your personal property from the car after a repo, you should be careful about what you leave in your car if you fear it might be repossessed. Such items include your driver’s license, tax papers, your Social Security Card, or any other documents, cell phones, or other devices with information on them you wish to keep private. It’s also a good idea not to store valuable items or items that would be difficult to replace in your car.
Your Rights When Your Car Is Repossessed
In addition to your right to get your personal property back after your car is repossessed, many states provide other rights to you.
State law usually requires finance companies to send you a notice of repossession. This notice will tell you how much you currently owe on the car loan, how much it cost them to tow your car away, and the amount of any storage fees they intend to charge you. The notice will also tell you how much time you have before they will sell the car. When you signed the loan documents for your car, you agreed that the lender had the right to repossess and sell the vehicle if you didn’t make payments.
At this point, you can decide if you want to redeem the car by paying off the balance owed to the lender in a lump sum or see whether you can refinance the car by getting a new loan. Your finance company may offer you the chance to refinance the debt, but you’ll have to ask. They will likely want you to pay any past due payments on the car as well as the towing and storage fees, plus have some assurance you will be able to resume payments under a revised payment plan.
If you don’t redeem or refinance the loan, the lender will sell the car and charge you the difference between what you still owe on the car loan and the amount they received for it at the auction.
If the lender sells the car, you’ll almost always owe a considerable amount to the lender because it will likely have been sold at an auction. Buyers at a car auction are not allowed to drive a car before they bid on it, so the price they’re willing to pay is usually very low, well below market value. Private sales rarely, if ever, happen as part of a car repossession.
You are responsible for paying the difference between what the car was sold for and the amount still owed on the loan. If you can’t pay this amount, known as a “deficiency,” the lender will sue you in court for this amount and get a “deficiency judgment” against you. This judgment will appear as a negative mark on your credit report for up to ten years. The lender can then sell this debt to a collection agency, which will pursue the debt against you, possibly by freezing your bank account(s) or garnishing your wages.
You can also choose to file bankruptcy to stop all collection actions against you. This will give you some time to decide if you want to keep the car by redeeming or reaffirming it, as mentioned above. It’s usually much easier to accomplish either of these options if the vehicle hasn’t been repossessed already. You can also decide to let the lender keep and sell the car, knowing that the bankruptcy discharge will protect you from a deficiency balance.
Filing bankruptcy can also keep your car out of the repossession game in the first place. If you are late on your car payments and believe someone will come to repo your car, filing bankruptcy will stop this from happening - at least temporarily. The lender or finance company will receive notice that you have filed bankruptcy and will call off any repossession they have planned. If you file bankruptcy right before your car is repossessed, the repo agent is required to promptly return your car to you, including your personal property.
Your personal belongings are your personal belongings. If a repo company took your car, you have the right to get these belongings back without having to pay a fee. But act quickly by contacting the repo agent.