Don't Sell Your Used Car Illegally

It Could Get Ticketed or Towed

'For Sale' sign placed in car window, outdoors, close-up

Alan Powdrill/Getty Images 

So you want to sell your used car. That's easy, you think. All you have to do is put a "For Sale" sign in one of the windows, park it out in public where the most people will see it, and wait for the offers to roll in. Right? Not necessarily. Some states or municipalities prohibit selling a car this way. Some will ticket your car or, even worse, tow it. So check in with your state to see which laws govern your sale. Only then should you proceed to advertise your vehicle.

Selling a Used Car in Milwaukee

Let's take a look at the laws in Wisconsin for an idea of how municipalities dictate what you can and cannot do with your property. The Milwaukee ordinance is especially stringent. Basically, the city of Milwaukee charges residents $40 for a permit to sell used cars on public property, i.e. vehicles parked on city streets.

And it’s not simple to get this permit, either. A Milwaukee resident needs to take a number of documents proving ownership to the local department of public works, which in turn has to inspect the vehicle and make sure its vehicle identification number (VIN) has not been altered.

There’s a huge consequence if you don’t get that permit. Your car will be towed and you will have to pay about $125 to get it back from the impound lot—just because you thought you were doing something perfectly legal.

Selling a Used Car in Virginia

There is a similar ordinance in the Fairfax County, Virginia, municipal code. Section 82-5-19, "Parking for certain purposes prohibited," reads in full that it shall be unlawful for any person:

(1) To park or place any automobile, truck, trailer or another vehicle upon or in any street, alley or parkway for the purpose of selling or offering the same for sale or rent;

(2) To attach or place any sign or lettering upon any automobile, truck, trailer or other vehicle parked in or upon any public street, alley or parkway indicating that such vehicle is offered for sale or for rent;

(3) To park any vehicle from which any merchandise is being sold on any street in a business district;

(4) To stop a vehicle at any time upon the highway for the purpose of advertising any article of any kind, or to display thereupon advertisements of any article or advertisement for the sale of the vehicle itself. (3-13-69; 1961 Code, § 16-123.)

The consequences aren’t as severe as the laws in Wisconsin, though. Your car won’t be towed, but you can face a $50 ticket if it's not removed after 48 hours.

Real-Life Incident 

Both these laws have been on the books for years, but few residents are aware they exist. One woman in Alexandria once parked her car on the street in front of her Fairfax County home. She said it had been sitting with the "For Sale" sign in the window for about three weeks when she got ticketed. Nobody in her neighborhood told her this was prohibited—likely because nobody knew. Neither did this woman receive any type of warning from a police officer or zoning official. Counties and municipalities might argue that this kind of information is readily available on their websites, but if most people don't even know this is an issue, there is no reason for them to check. These types of laws can be especially frustrating for members of the military, who often move from town to town and also often find themselves needing to quickly sell their car before deploying. 

So before you slap a "For Sale" sign on your car and park it away from home (remember, the street in front of your residence is considered public property), make sure you research your state, county, and municipal laws. Better yet, choose another method by which you can easily—and legally—sell your vehicle.