Has a mechanic’s lien been placed on your car? Here are some things to know.

Female mechanic talking with a customerImage: Female mechanic talking with a customer

In a Nutshell

If you’ve had work done on your car and you don’t pay the person or company you hired, they may take legal action, known as a mechanic’s lien, to recover the cost of their parts or labor. Depending on your state’s law, an unpaid mechanic’s lien may allow the lienholder to sell your car at auction. If a mechanic’s lien is placed on your vehicle, your options are limited. In fact, if you don’t want to lose your car, you may have only one route: Pay the bill.
Editorial Note: Intuit Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our third-party advertisers don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. Information about financial products not offered on Credit Karma is collected independently. Our content is accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.

Similar to how an auto lender with a lien on your car can take legal action and repossess your vehicle if you default on your car loan, a mechanic could take possession of your car with a mechanic’s lien if you don’t pay for services owed.

The term “mechanic’s lien” can be used in different situations involving different kinds of property, not just cars. But when it comes to your vehicle, if you don’t pay for repairs, tows or storage that you’ve commissioned within a specific period of time — which varies by state — the service provider who has worked on your vehicle can take steps to establish a mechanic’s lien. A mechanic’s lien, also known as a garageman’s lien, means the mechanic, storage facility or towing company may be able to sell your car to obtain compensation for the unpaid debt, depending on your state’s law.

Let’s take a look at how a mechanic’s lien works and the steps you might be able to take if one is placed on your car.

What is a mechanic’s lien?

If a mechanic has serviced your car and you haven’t paid the bill, they may be able to establish a lien on your vehicle, which usually gives them legal claim over the car until you pay back what you owe in full. This is called a mechanic’s lien or a garageman’s lien.

A mechanic’s lien is a type of possessory lien. This means that the mechanic or other service provider can establish the lien to retain possession of a vehicle if services go unpaid. Depending on the laws in your state, the mechanic may even be able to sell your car to recoup some or all of the money you owe. If you’ve had your car towed or stored and haven’t paid the associated fees, the towing or storage company may also be able to get a mechanic’s lien under some circumstances.

Even if the mechanic returned the car to someone who paid with a bad check or issued a stop payment on the transaction, the mechanic’s lien may allow them to use the lien to repossess the vehicle.

How does a mechanic’s lien work?

The steps that a mechanic or other service provider needs to follow to get a mechanic’s lien and sell the car varies by state.

Getting a mechanic’s lien

States’ lien laws typically require that a debt be outstanding for a certain number of days before a mechanic’s lien can be filed. This time period varies from state to state, too. In some states, a mechanic’s lien can be filed if you haven’t paid your bill within 30 days after it’s due. But in Virginia, for example, a service provider may be able to sell the vehicle if the debt isn’t paid within 10 days after it’s due.

In some states, you have to apply for a mechanic’s lien by completing an application form and providing some documentation. These documents might include a signed repair authorization or signed storage contract and certified letter notifying the car owner of the intent to file a mechanic’s lien on the vehicle.

In California, the lien becomes effective when the car owner is provided a bill, or 15 days after the repairs are completed — whichever occurs first — but the mechanic must apply to the state’s DMV for authorization to conduct the actual vehicle sale.

Check with your state’s transportation agency to learn more about the laws and process where you live.

Vehicle sale

Once a mechanic’s lien is established, the service provider may be able to sell the car to a third party or at auction. The process for selling a car with a mechanic’s lien varies by state.

Before the sale, the mechanic typically needs to publicly advertise the auction via a newspaper ad or other eligible public location — sometimes, for a certain number of days. Depending on the state, the mechanic may also need to send the car owner and other lienholders notice via certified mail about the upcoming sale of the property.

Once the vehicle has been sold, the person who bought it becomes the new owner — and they can register the car and apply for a title.

What can I do if a mechanic’s lien is placed on my car?

If the lien involves unpaid repairs, you may be allowed to inspect the vehicle before paying your bill. You may be able to schedule a time to inspect the vehicle to see if the repairs have been made to your satisfaction.

A word of warning: If you’re tempted to issue a stop payment on a check for unsatisfactory repair services, it may not be a good idea — it could be a criminal offense in your state, depending on your situation. If you’ve been wrongfully charged for repairs, consider paying the bill to get the car back and then seeking legal advice. An attorney should be able to help you find out what your rights are based on your situation.

But what if you dispute the amount of the charges? If you dispute the charges and the mechanic has held onto your vehicle, you may be able to file an action of replevin to try to recover your car. A replevin action, also known as “claim and delivery,” can help return your personal property — in this case, your car — if it’s being wrongfully held by another person. It can get complicated, so be sure to reach out to an attorney or legal aid organization to seek assistance beforehand.

If the repairs or services were provided as initially planned and the mechanic’s lien is legitimate, your only option for getting your car back might be to pay what you owe. Once you pay off your debt, the mechanic may need to sign and submit a release of lien letter or form that ends their ownership claim on your car. It’s a good idea to reach each out to an attorney or legal aid organization for help navigating the process.

Next steps

If a mechanic’s lien is placed on your car, it’s important to respond quickly. Depending on where you live, you may receive a certified letter with specific timelines.

If you don’t have the cash to pay off what you owe, see if you can reach an agreement with the repair shop or storage facility to pay in installments and avoid having a mechanic’s lien placed on your car.

About the author: Warren Clarke is a writer whose work has been published by Edmunds.com and the New York Daily News. He enjoys providing readers with information that can make their lives happier and more expansive. Warren holds a Bac… Read more.