Rick Sieman: DirtBike Title Nightmares; One Man’s Amazing Saga

Rick Sieman’s convoluted tale of dealing with the DMV while attempting to title a dirtbike of questionable origins. Have you experienced something similar?

Many of us have a dirt bike or two in the garage and if it’s an old bike, chances are we have a bill of sale for it but maybe not a title. Let’s face it, if you buy an old bike that’s been sitting in a shed for 35 years, the paperwork isn’t current, or it’s non-existent.


So let’s say that you’ve taken the time and money to restore that bike and you figure that having some sort of proof of ownership might be a good thing. Your first step, more than likely, would be to take the Bill Of Sale down to your local Department Of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and get a title. While all states have different regulations, they are alarmingly similar in how they handle old dirtbikes.

Should be simple, right? Not so.

Follow along with a friend of mine, who asked to remain anonymous, and see what he had to deal with as he tried to make some off-road motorcycles/dirtbikes legal in the state of Arizona. This truly eye-opening story should serve as a warning to all of us who buy dirtbikes, especially vintage bikes. If you had a title/bike ownership incident with your local DMV, drop us an email and we’ll share it with our readers. We’d be highly interested in how they do it in states throughout the country.–Rick Sieman.

So who actually owns that vintage bike in your garage? How many times have you heard when buying a new vintage project, “It has a clear title?” Let me share my story with you. It may change the way you approach your next project.

Sometime in the latter half of the racing season, we determined my oldest son Zack had outgrown his Yamaha 125. He is growing up, has his high school friends, is interested in girls and told me he doesn’t want to race anymore but really enjoys our trail rides. So we sold the Yamaha and began a search for a Kawasaki 250. Zack wanted something newer, water cooled and disc brakes; something he could brag to his friends about.

2001 Kawasaki KX250

After a few weeks of searching, we found a 2001 KX250 in Gilbert, Arizona. The guy wanted $1300; the economy was crashing and he said he needed the money. When I got to his house, it was apparent where his money was going. His wife was the high-maintenance type–expensive clothes, the big hair, nails done–the works.

I looked over the bike, ran it down the street and we agreed on a price. I asked if he had the title, and he handed me a Bill of Sale on a DMV Form but said he didn’t have the title. I didn’t think twice about it. I’d probably bought or sold 50 bikes since I moved to Arizona 20 years ago and have yet to own a bike with an actual title. While titles are required in Arizona, registration for dirtbikes was not, so nobody paid too close attention to titles.

About Christmas time of 2008, we all started to hear about the upcoming change in the law, where registration for dirtbikes was now required if you are to ride on public land. If you were to ride only on private land, or sanctioned events, you still don’t need a registration, at least for now.

Around January of 2009 I started to do some research. I didn’t have a title for any of the vintage bikes in my garage, nor for the KX250. I read the web pages, talked on the blogs and so on. Finally, I decided to take my 1985 Yamaha TY350 to to my local Arizona DMV office to get it registered, sort of as a test to learn first-hand how the process worked and if anything went wrong. I had the least amount of money invested in this bike.

The process took from 8:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Yeah, that is not a typo. The process took nearly eight hours, but I did walk away with a title and registration for my TY.

A few weeks later, I decided to take a day off work and register the three remaining bikes, so we could trail ride as a family. I got up early and took my youngest son Mitch to a 7 a.m. dentist appointment, then before I took him back to school he helped me load the three remaining bikes: My 1979 Husqvarna OR 390 that I raced two seasons with AVDRA (which has no title), Mitch’s 2004 Kawasaki KX85 that we recently bought him with a California title, and Zack’s KX250.

When it comes to titling and registering a dirtbike of which the ownership is unclear, plan on spending a day, or days, at your local DMV office.

I arrived at the DMV with the three bikes in the truck and trailer at 8:05 a.m. I was the first in line. The inspector took the VIN numbers from each machine and checked them against two databases. The first is the stolen vehicles database. The second looks for prior registered owners and liens against the vehicles.

Mitch’s KX85 was a breeze. I had a title, so it only took 20 minutes and $37 and I had a new title in my name, a license plate and an off-road sticker.

My Husqvarna took almost all day for two reasons. One, I didn’t have a title, so I needed to purchase a bond Title. The DMV tells you that most insurance or title companies will sell you a bond Title, but the fact is almost none of them provide this service. I spent close to two hours calling before I finally found someone within a reasonable driving distance to perform the task.

Second, when I returned with the bond title to the DMV (which cost around $100) they then, and only then, told me they were concerned that the VIN number had been modified and I needed to go to Tempe DMV Law Enforcement to have the bike re-inspected and cleared. I tried to explain to them that vintage Huskys have numbers that appear to be stamped but in fact are that way from the factory in Sweden, and the motor nNumber and engine number will not match. They didn’t believe me and were very certain that someone ground off the VIN number and put this hokey-looking stamp in its place. After all, a modern VIN number looks nothing like MM05362, does it?

So off to Tempe I drove. The law enforcement person at the Tempe Station was very professional and courteous. After I explained to him more than he ever wanted to know about vintage Huskys, he took my $20 and walked to his computer. Fifteen minutes later he returned, telling me everything I said was true, and he signed-off my clearance documents. I ran back to the DMV for the registration and title, and eight hours and $167 later I had a registered vintage Husqvarna. At this point, I also “closed” the DMV… twice. Do I know how to party or what?

Zack’ss KX 250 was a different story. The DMV told me their vehicle report showed a former registered owner and a lien against the bike. I needed to contact both parties and get the title and the lien release. If I could not get at least the lien release, I would have to go to court and have a judge release the lien. I started to feel faint.

After I completed the DMV process with the Husqvarna, the day was over, so when I got home that night I Googled the lien holder and called them. The lien holder told me to make the request in writing, and I would have an answer in a few weeks. They didn’t say I would have a lien release. They said I would have an answer. Then I looked up the former registered owner in the telephone book. He was still in town, so I called him. His wife answered the phone and told me the bike was stolen from him 10 years ago! As you can imagine, I was thinking that is it, the bike will be confiscated and I will be out the cost of the bike and all the parts and work I have put into it since we bought it, and my son Zack would be absolutely crushed that his bike is gone.

The wife said not to worry because the former registered owner was a family guy now and wouldn’t want the bike back; we could work something out. I began to panic! I had a good job and a security clearance with the Department of Defense, and I didn’t want a stolen article in my garage, let alone negotiate over a stolen vehicle.

The following day I actually talked to the owner himself, and he was really pissed off that I was calling. He also told me if I wanted the title, it would cost me $200. Okay. I would still be money ahead, but I knew now that I was dealing with a scum bag.

So the next day I called the former owner again to meet and do the transaction of him signing the title and lien release over to me for the $200, but he told me the deal was off. He now wanted me to bring the bike to his house where a police officer would be waiting to “look” at the bike. I panicked some more, as this sounded like a setup.

I called my attorney, who didn’t know anything about stolen property but knew a criminal attorney, so I called him. The criminal attorney was actually really patient (and didn’t charge me anything) and basically told me the following: One, there is no “good faith” law in Arizona. That means just because I bought the bike for a fair sum from a buyer that appeared to be legitimate, does not mean I own the bike. I have zero claim to this motorcycle.

Also, the attorney told me not to put the stolen bike in my truck, because if I got pulled over and the police officer ran the VIN on the bike, they would confiscate the bike and my truck, and arrest me. Third, he told me not to go see the former owner, as it sounded like the guy was up to no good. He’d already shown he was a dirtball by extorting the $200 for the title and lien release. Fourth, if I showed up at the former owner’s house, while the police officer “probably” wouldn’t arrest me because I had a legitimate story on how I acquired the bike and a document that proved it, he could arrest me if he didn’t like my face.

And last, the attorney told me to call the police and tell them to come get the bike, because again, despite the fact I bought the bike in “good faith” there is no good faith law in Arizona and I couldn’t claim legal ownership even if I acquired the title from the former owner.

When I got home, I called the Phoenix police and told them to come and get the bike. Like I said, I had a security clearance and a job in aerospace and didn’t want anything stolen in my possession. They asked for the VIN number, and I give it to them. Then they said: “Sir, this motorcycle is not stolen.”

The Phoenix police officer on the phone was very informative and polite. She said the bike was stolen, but thought it may have been recovered then sold with a clear title through one of those police auctions. So, if I could get the former owner to give me the title I would legally own the bike. If not, the DMV had a process for me to take ownership of the bike. The Phoenix police also recommended that I call the Chandler police, where the bike was originally reported stolen. So I called the Chandler Police. Again, they told me the bike was not stolen.

The next day, the former owner called and acted all cordial, which alerted me–dirtball to cordial, hmmm. We met at a bank near his work, and he signed over the title. We got it notarized and, of course, I gave him the $200. The former owner wouldn’t budge without me giving him the $200. He was a bitter, angry guy. After it was done, he admitted it was recovered, but he was never notified, so he didn’t get his bike back and said there was a problem with the police report and the VIN number. I didn’t believe a word of it, since his story changed too often.

It was 3:50 p.m. on Friday, and I could still make the DMV before they closed, so I raced over to the Chandler DMV.

I got there, and they remembered me from Tuesday and were all giddy about me getting through the whole process. “Aren’t you happy?” they said. “It’s almost done!” Then the clerk said, “I have to make a call,” and got up and left for over 30 minutes. I was wondering what in the heck is going on here? They were so sweet and nice, and then turned and walked away. Every employee was now looking at us, but nobody would tell us what was going on for about 30 minutes.

Turns out they called the Chandler police because their database said the bike was “possibly stolen.” Keep in mind that earlier in the week I was told the VIN for this bike was already run through a stolen vehicles database. So why were they telling me this now, after I spent $200 for the title and lien release? When the Police Oofficer arrived and asked where the guy they called about was, and the DMV clerk pointed to me, the officer said, “What? You gotta be kidding me. He doesn’t look like a thief.”

I explained everything to the Police officer, and he ran the VIN on the laptop in his car. Of course, the bike was clean. And the officer also said he didn’t understand why the police didn’t just tell them the bike wasn’t stolen; go ahead and proceed with the registration. He was right in the middle of a child abuse investigation and got called to this, and he wasn’t too happy. A few minutes later, I had my title, my license plate and off-road sticker. I was frazzled. Karen and I went to dinner at our favorite local Italian place, and I didn’t taste a thing. I was wiped out from the whole DMV experience.

So it’s all fine now right? You’d think so. But…

When we got home, the Chandler police had left a message saying they had more information on the bike. I couldn’t believe it! I called back and left a message, but they never called back again. I was worried they were going to say it was stolen after all. Karen said not to worry about it; I had a title and a license plate. It was my bike now.

Four days later, a Chandler police detective left a business card on my door, so I called the detective. He told me the Phoenix police and Chandler police I had talked to Friday were mistaken. The bike was still stolen but was purged from the National Database after five years had passed. So it was still regarded as “stolen.”

He asked me if I was selling the bike and I told him no. He then said if I did have the bike for sale, he would come get it now, but if I wasn’t selling it I needed to hang on to it. He said he would get back to me in a day or so.

The following day the detective called again and said he would like to come by and look at my paperwork. He said he would be there in 15 minutes. And then, five minutes later he called back and said another priority came up and he wouldn’t be able to make it. I could hear sirens and people shouting in the background. He said he would be at my house the next day about 4:30 p.m.

The next day at precisely 4:30 p.m. the Chandler detective came to the house, looked at the tTitle and took copies of my bill of sale and DMV report.
The bottom line was, he said, “You have the Title, you have the bike. It’s your bike.” Now the issue was to clean up the paper trail so when I did eventually sell it I wouldn’t have to go through this mess again.

I eventually received a copy of all police documents. The whole process took close to three months from the time I pulled up to the DMV to register the bike until I received the police reports. The detective was very professional, courteous and even offered that if I pick up a vintage project down the road and want him to do a Level 2 inspection before I put any money into it, he would be happy to do that even though I live outside the city he serves.

So what did I learn from all this? The next vintage project bike I buy is going straight to the police station for a Level 2 inspection and to the DMV for a title before I put a nickel into restoring the bike.

I picked up a very rough 1974 Yamaha TY250 about a year ago. I paid $200 for it. That would have been a great time to get a title for the bike. Today, I have about $2K invested in the bike, and it’s not yet complete. When it’s complete, (after all that time and money) would be a really bad time to find out it was reported stolen and the original owner wants his bike back.