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How Do You Buy a Car Out of State?

Cast a wide geographic net for your next car and it can help you track down a hard-to-find model or, in some cases, score a better deal thanks to different regional pricing trends. Cross state lines, however, and the process can require extra steps. Plenty of shoppers do it, especially in regions with large populations near state boundaries like much of the Northeast. Here’s what you need to know.

Related: Should I Buy a New or Used Car?

Mind the Steps

If you’re buying a car in a separate state to bring back home, you should expect to incur at least three steps — registration, taxes and fees, and inspections — all in accordance with requirements from your home state and, in some cases, local jurisdiction (e.g., county). Some states and jurisdictions may not require all of these steps, but it’s a good baseline to start.

  • Registration: You’ll generally have to register or title the car back where you live, not where the car is sold. Check the website of your state’s revenue office or department of motor vehicles for specifics. If you’re buying the car out of state from a private party, you may have to visit that state’s department of motor vehicles to get temporary licensing before you register the vehicle in your home state.
  • Taxes and Fees: As part of local registration for your just-purchased car, expect to pay state and local taxes along with any other required fees. You may have to furnish a bill of sale or lease contract to prove the purchase price and any taxes already paid. Check with your state to determine the window of time — typically 30 days — by which you have to file all paperwork.
  • Inspections: Some states or counties may require emissions certification for any out-of-state purchase to ensure it meets local requirements for tailpipe pollutants. California, for example, requires residents purchasing a car from out of state to buy an emissions-compliant vehicle that meets the state’s pollution standards, though it provides for a few exceptions. Beyond that, some states — Texas, for example — require a safety inspection atop local emissions certifications.

Sellers accustomed to out-of-state purchasers (a dealership just across state lines, for example) may be able to assist in some of the above requirements. Finally, you’ll want to call your insurance provider to add the vehicle to your policy before you get the keys. This applies to in-state vehicle purchases, too, but check with your insurance company to see if it has any additional requirements for out-of-state purchases. If you don’t have insurance yet, many dealers will sell a temporary point-of-sale policy, sometimes called a binder.

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Regional Prices May Vary

Think you’ve scored a deal by shopping in a different area where discounts are higher? Read the fine print. Many areas with unique discounts impose residency restrictions for which traveling shoppers may not qualify. That’s not to say you can’t take advantage of localized pricing trends, especially among used cars. Vehicles with four-wheel drive are less popular in warmer, low-elevation states, while convertibles are less popular in the snow belt. Local supply and demand can significantly affect vehicle pricing.

Shoppers willing to travel can leverage such trends to their advantage, but only if they negotiate beforehand or shop competing examples in the area. If a seller knows he or she possesses the sole example of a car you want and you drove hundreds of miles to see it, don’t expect much leverage to negotiate.

Buying Sight-Unseen

Buying a car sight-unseen might appeal for an out-of-state purchase, where traveling to the seller can be expensive and inconvenient. But if it’s at all possible, it’s worth it to do so —  unless the seller will deliver the car locally for you to test-drive before you buy. Show up in person, and you can test-drive the car and see it up close — a degree of scrutiny you can’t get from a distance. It also makes it easier to get the car to an independent mechanic to inspect it before purchase, which we strongly advise.

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