Buying a Car

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website has detailed and helpful information on purchasing a vehicle, how to follow the laws once you own a car in California, and much more. The information provided below is not considered a comprehensive guide but a summary of important steps and tips.

Before You Buy a Car

If you decide to buy a car, you can often save money if you do research beforehand. A good place to start is online. There are a variety of websites that provide a lot of helpful information about different vehicles and survey the level of customer satisfaction.  Some are free; some require subscriptions or fees.

The following websites are good places to start:

Buying a New Car

Each car dealer offers different prices. After you choose a model, you must select the "options" or special features you are interested in - engine size, automatic or manual  transmission, and so on. Spend time looking at different cars and models.  Compare basic prices and added option costs.  Get advice from experienced car buyers, not just from salespeople. You may also want to consult with a "broker" - one such service in the area is Cartelligent.

Buying a Used Car

Used cars are less expensive than new cars, but the buyer must be willing to assume the risk of car trouble and repair costs. Check the Kelly Blue Book for average prices of different years and models. You will probably be able to get the best deal on a car from a private person who advertises on sites such as Craigslist.  

Any reputable person selling a used car will allow you to take the car to a garage mechanic not associated with the seller for a thorough inspection.  (This is called a "diagnostic check").  Mechanics usually charge $50-60 for this service. Contact the California State Automobile Association CSAA for a list of recommended mechanics.

Paying for a Car

Two common ways to purchase a new or used vehicle in the U.S.:

  • Cash

You can often get the best price for a car by offering to pay the full amount in cash.  "Cash" in this case means a cashier's check or money order from a bank.  It does not mean dollar bills.  DO NOT CARRY DOLLARS!  Be suspicious of anyone asking you to bring the full amount in actual cash bills. IT IS DANGEROUS TO CARRY LARGE AMOUNTS OF MONEY WITH YOU.

  • Financing

Whether buying a new or used car through a car dealership, research the different methods of financing because loans can add 20-30% to the total price of the car.  If you decide to buy on credit, it is best to do so through a credit union, bank, or savings and loan association.  Finally, before signing ANY documents, make certain that you understand all the details of the sale and payments required. Keep copies of all documents. 

Automobile Registration

Once you have purchased a car, you need to register it in the state of California.  This process takes several steps.  First, as you complete the purchase of the car, make sure you are given a certificate of ownership (also called the "pink slip") by the dealer or previous owner.  The certificate must be signed by the previos owner and it must indicate that you are the new owner.  (You will need this slip to register your car and also to sell it later.)  Next, ask the seller for the the smog test certification.  This form asserts that your car doesn't over-pollute the environment. The seller has to have this certification done at the time you purchase the car.

If you purchased a car from a company, that dealership will often take care of registration and will mail license plates to you. If you purchased a car from a private seller, you must register it at the with the California Department of Motor Vehicles on your own.  Bring your car, the certificate of ownership and the smog test certification to the DMV.  You will pay a registration fee based on the model and age of the car.  A temporary registration slip will be issued and ownership recorded. An official registration slip will be mailed to you.  Used cars keep their license plates, so you do not need to remove them.

Bringing a Car to California from Another U.S. State

If you plan on living in California for more than just a short visit, you should register your car in California. However, this may be very expensive if your car does not meet the California emission standards or pass the smog test. Contact the California Department of Motor Vehicles to find out what the requirements are to register your car.

Automobile Insurance

Drivers of automobiles, motorcycles, and other motor vehicles have a financial and legal responsibility in case of an accident that involves injury, death, damage to other vehicles, and damage to property. DO NOT DRIVE WITHOUT INSURANCE! There are very serious legal and financial consequences if you do not have insurance. Please refer to the Handbook for the State of California's minimum legal requirements covering personal liability and property damage. An electronic version of the handbook is available for your reference (link above) and you can get a hard copy at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Please also see the section of our website on Auto Insurance.

An Alternative to Owning Your Own Car

There are several companies in the Bay Area that allow you to use a car when you need it without incurring the fixed costs of ownership. Cars are available to members on a per-use basis. You need a US dirvers license, and you pay based on how much you drive. The fees usually include gas, insurance, and maintenance. Here are a few popular car share companies in the Bay Area: