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Buying a car out of state

What you need to know for a long-distance vehicle purchase

Profile picture of Danni White
by Danni White ConsumerAffairs Research Team
salesperson handing over car keys

If you're planning to purchase a vehicle in another state, it's important to understand the purchase process and how it differs from buying a local vehicle. However, planning, doing your research and reading the fine print can help you to make a great purchase at a great price.

How to buy a car from another state

With the ability to browse millions of car listings online, buying a car out of state has never been easier. Many buyers like taking advantage of lower prices in other areas and the much larger inventory available nationwide. However, buying a car out of state introduces some new challenges, including a few important steps both before and after the purchase. Here’s what the process looks like once you choose to buy a car out of state.

1. Get a vehicle history report

A vehicle history report gives you a glimpse of a car's past, including details about its accident history, maintenance, ownership and title status. These reports might have details about how often the car's oil was changed or if it was used as a rental car or taxi. They are almost always a good idea when buying a used car, but they’re especially important if you’re buying a car in another state.

You can pull a report on any car as long as you have the vehicle identification number (VIN). The service usually costs between $10 and $40. Some sellers provide access to a vehicle's history report as an incentive.

2. Get an inspection

If you want a third-party opinion on a vehicle's condition, you can arrange for a prepurchase inspection. This usually involves the seller taking the vehicle to a mechanic or having a mobile mechanic visit them. A prepurchase inspection will help you confirm a car's condition or alert you to any potential issues, both of which are even more important if you’re buying the car remotely.

Inspections generally cost between $100 and $200, depending on the mechanic and the type of car you’re buying. Prepurchase inspections are more common when buying from a private seller, but that doesn’t mean all private sellers will be happy to comply. It’s up to you to weigh the risks of buying without one and decide what’s right for you.

3. Buy the car

While you may have to go through the steps remotely, the actual purchase process isn’t all that different when you’re buying a vehicle in another state. You still want to get a good loan, negotiate the sticker price, and double-check the purchase agreement before signing. Just make sure that you have a way to avoid scams and make sure you get what you pay for.

4. Pay sales tax

Sales tax is typically paid at the dealer and sent back to your home state, but it’s up to you if you’re buying from a private seller. The exact amount depends on your state's sales tax and any additional local taxes. During the vehicle's registration, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) should confirm the amount paid and require you to make up any difference.

5. Get it home

Once the sale is done, it’s often up to you to get the vehicle home in one piece. Depending on its condition, you may be able to drive it back. However, this assumes you have the time and money to leave your state and take a road trip home.

The alternative is hiring an auto transport company to ship your car to you. Just make sure you choose a reputable transporter and opt for insurance during transit.

6. Obtain required safety and emissions test results

You may be required to schedule a safety and emissions test to confirm that your car is safe to drive. During this inspection, your car will undergo a series of tests to ensure that it isn't emitting more pollution than legally allowed. The inspector will test the gas cap pressure, on-board diagnostics, tailpipe emissions, emissions control system and idling emissions. Check the regulations in your home state, county and other locales to see if this requirement applies to your new vehicle.

In some cases, the emission standards in the purchase state may be lower than your home state. If your vehicle fails the inspection, you'll need to take the car to a certified repair shop to correct it.

7. Insure the car

Your car should be insured before it even leaves the lot. If you're financing your vehicle, you may even be required to provide proof of insurance before that.

To add your car to a new or existing policy, simply call your car insurance company or complete the process online. If you don’t already work with a car insurance company, shop around for an appropriate amount of coverage at an affordable rate.

8. Register the car

Once your purchase is home, you'll need to register it with the local DMV. Some dealers may provide a temporary registration with the temporary tags. If they're offered in your home state, you can also get a trip permit, allowing you to drive unregistered temporarily. Register your car within the allowed time frame to avoid fines or other penalties.

Register your car within the allowed time frame to avoid fines or other penalties."

To register your car, you'll need to bring a few documents to the DMV. The supporting documentation depends on your state, but common requirements include a form of identification, the car's title, proof of sales tax and proof of address.

9. Secure the title

Your vehicle’s title may be required to register the car in your state. When you purchase a car at a dealership, they'll send the title paperwork to your state's DMV. Purchasing a car from a private seller requires that they sign the title over to you and have the transfer notarized.

If you paid upfront, you'll receive the title in the mail after the DMV is finished processing it. If you have a car loan, the lender may keep the original title at its office until the balance is paid off.

Reasons to buy a car out of state

There are two main reasons people buy cars out of state:

  • Buying a car out of state gives you more options. If you're looking for a particular model, having a larger network of sellers can help you find the perfect vehicle, especially if you’re looking for a rare or collectible car.
  • Shopping in other states might save you money. It's often easier to find dealers offering great discounts and promotions if you widen your search. Long-distance shopping might also be smart if you live in an area that has higher average car values. Just keep in mind that, while buying out of state can get you a lower price, getting your car home may add to the expense.

There are also less common reasons for buying a vehicle in another state. Some people like to shop in desert states because vehicles in arid climates often have less rust. Others may live near a border, where many of their local options are across a state line. Whatever your reason, make sure you think about any peculiarities that may arise.

What to consider when buying a car from another state

If a vehicle has liens, ensure they are resolved before moving the car or you could be held responsible.

Buying a car out of state complicates the car buying process, so it’s smart to think it through ahead of time:

  • Since you can't use your local mechanic for a prepurchase inspection, be sure to research highly rated, trustworthy mechanics near the seller.
  • You need to pay the sales tax to your home state instead of the state where you buy the car. If you’re buying from a dealership, this may be calculated for you. However, this can occasionally result in you owing more taxes when you get back home due to state and local regulations. Your local DMV will let you know if you owe any additional sales tax.
  • You will also need to register the vehicle and have it inspected in your home state. If you elect to drive your purchase back home, you may be pulled over due to missing plates. However, you should be able to show your paperwork from the seller to explain your situation. Consult your local DMV to see how long you can wait to register.
  • If you would rather not make the drive or your new car doesn’t run, make sure you budget for professional vehicle shipping to have it delivered safely to your home.
  • If you live in California, you will need to prove that the vehicle meets the California Air Resources Board's standards for emissions. If the car does not meet these requirements, it will need to be repaired in a certified shop. These repairs can be costly if more than one component doesn't pass inspection.

Is buying a car out of state right for me?

Buying a car out of state is worth considering, especially if you're looking for a great deal or a specific model. While getting the vehicle back to your home state can add some cost and hassle, it's often worth it to find the car you’re looking for. If you’re shopping for a car online, it doesn’t hurt to open up your search area and see if there’s anything appealing outside of your state.

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Profile picture of Danni White
by Danni White ConsumerAffairs Research Team

As a member of the ConsumerAffairs research team, Danni White is committed to providing valuable resources designed to help consumers make informed purchase decisions. Danni specializes in content strategy and development, with over a decade of professional writing and research experience.