Buying a car out of state: how to protect yourself

Sometimes, when you’re looking for a very specific car—maybe a particular combination of options, an unusual color, or just a car that’s rare overall—your only option may be buying it from out of state. Now, with the pandemic’s impact and scarcity of cars on the market, it’s a perfect time to broaden your search to other states and increase your chances of finding a car that works for you.

Buying a car from a different state is definitely possible, but there are a few more things to consider, and do, than if you were buying it in the state where you live and plan to register it. If it’s a new car, and you’re buying it from a dealer, most of this won’t apply—you’ll just need to make sure you get all the documentation your state will require when you go to register it. But if it’s used, things are a little more involved.

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Each state has its own rules about bringing in a car from out of state, so you’ll need to check with your state’s department of motor vehicles. Here’s a rundown of some of the general things you’ll need to be aware of:

Know what you’re getting

This is common sense, but sometimes people feel awkward about asking questions and doing all the necessary diligence they should, when they’re buying from a distance. It’s ideal, of course, to go see and drive the car you’re interested in, if you can. If you live relatively close to where it’s located, this is definitely the best option. But if the car you’ve got your eye on is several states away, or across the country, you’ll need to cover your bases without being there.

It’s also a very good idea to find a trusted mechanic or inspection service (or dealer for the type of car it is) to inspect it before you agree to buy it. That way, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting, and whether there are any expensive repairs it might need.

Title and other paperwork

You’ll want to be sure that the person selling the car has the title, and that it’s in their name, with no co-owner or lienholder. It’s a very good idea to run a CARFAX report to confirm the car’s history, and ownership. That way, you can be sure it hasn’t been in any major accidents, has a clean (not salvaged/total loss) title, and that the person you’re buying it from owns it outright.

Image credit: CARFAX

You’ll also want to check with your state’s DMV to make sure you get all the documentation they’ll require when you go to register it at home. Usually you’ll also need a bill of sale, to show what you paid—and some states have their own form for that.

Your own state’s taxes

Remember that while you probably won’t have to pay sales tax when you buy the car, your own state will most likely collect it—along with license and registration fees—when you register it in your name. There are often additional fees for registering a car that hasn’t been titled in your own state, as well. It’s probably a good idea to look into what these costs will be before buying out of state, just so there aren’t any surprises.

Your own state’s smog regulations

Some states—like California—have especially stringent emissions requirements. This can mean that certain cars simply can’t be registered in the state at all. So you’ll definitely want to thoroughly research this, and make sure that the car you’re buying can meet the requirements—and pass a smog test that will be accepted by your state—if it’s old enough to require that.


image credit: Montway Auto Transport

Before you close the deal, also be sure that you have a plan for getting the car delivered to you. Transporting a car can be expensive, and often it won’t be easy to find a transport company that can be in a particular city for pickup (or delivery) on a specific day. Generally, you and the seller will have to work with a window of time that you’ll need to be available, and the transport company will let you know a more exact day/time as they get closer to the pickup and dropoff locations.

It’s also important to make sure that the seller and/or transport driver carefully documents the condition upon pickup, and takes good photographs of all sides of the car. If it arrives with any sort of damage, it will be very helpful to have proof of whether it was already damaged when picked up, or if it happened in transit.

Check out TRED’s selection

Check out the cars we have available on TRED—we can show you how to buy a car out of state, and help you with every step of the process. We’ll protect you by making sure you get exactly what you pay for, help you find a transport, and we’ll handle all the paperwork—so you don’t have to hassle with any of the out-of-state complexities, or deal with the DMV at all!

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