How to buy a car in California for a USA road trip

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So you want to do the big classic USA road trip? Coast to coast, sea to shining sea, cruising on the open road in your own ride, stopping at all the gut-busting barbecue joints and weird roadside sights essential to a Great American Road Trip.

It sounds great on paper, but what to do about the most necessary part—the ride? One-way rentals are expensive as shit, and also lacking in a little bit of style. The other option is to buy; buying a cheap car on one end and selling it on the other seems to make sense, but the mechanics of buying a car in a foreign place can be confusing and fraught with, um, potholes.

Or so we thought when planning for our own trip, from Los Angeles, California to the East Coast. Buying a car as a non-California resident, and indeed a non-US resident, isn’t as difficult as it sounds, but things get a little tricky when it comes to the fact that any road tripper will probably need a car quick, and only need it for a short period of time.

This is our guide to buying a road trip car in California, coming mainly from our own experience buying a (very) cheap car in LA in May, 2014. It took us a couple of weeks to get up and running, but now that we did we’re far more happy that we decided to purchase a car instead of rent one, even for a trip of just two months. We hope this guide helps out other visitors to the USA who want to do the same thing.

Buying from a dealer

For someone short on time, buying from a dealer would be a logical solution. Dealers have a large selection so you can get a lot out of one viewing; the cars have been serviced; all the paperwork is handled for you, so there’s no faffing around at the DMV.

If you have a budget above $3000, this might be the way to go. But if you don’t, tread carefully. Most dealers don’t carry many, if any, cars in the $1500-$3000 range because they’re just not profitable. The vehicles they do have could either be a great deal, or big lemons. Unfortunately, not all used car dealers are very trustworthy (can you believe it?), and it’s very easy palm off a vehicle with underlying problems to someone who won’t be around to complain.

On the national used car websites, you’ll find a lot of amazing-sounding deals at dealers that turn out to be auction houses. A big one in LA was BLOK Charity Auto Clearance, but there’s probably one or two in every major city. Do a quick google and check out their reviews; it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that most of these places are full of bum deals. Auction house-dealers sell their vehicles as-is, and to buy from them is really playing Russian roulette. Unless you have the resources and money to fix up a lemon, avoid, avoid, avoid.

A dealer will be able to handle all the paperwork for you, but it may take a couple of days or weeks to receive the license plate (you’ll get a temporary paper license plate in the meantime), and you will need a local address.

Buying from a private seller

If your budget is under $3000, which it probably is if you ended up here, your best bet is to go with a private seller.

We’re no car experts, so for us the most important thing was finding a buyer we could trust. There’s loads of Joe Schmoes out there trying to offload unwanted vehicles by hiding or stretching the truth, and buyers who plan to flee the state are like golden tickets to Avoid Any Accountability Land. If you can afford to take one or two cars you really like to a mechanic for an evaluation, do it. Any good owner should be willing to let you do this; if the owner doesn’t want a mechanic to see it before the sale, that’s a sign something’s wrong.

There are obviously lots of different places to find vehicles, from car-centric websites like Autotrader to classifieds like craigslist. We even went as far as trying the LA Japanese version of craigslist, Vivinavi, hoping that Japanese people would be more honest (nope) or that the cars in our price range would be better maintained (nope again).

In the end we managed to find our car through good ol’ fashion word-of-mouth: A friend-of-a-friend saw my Facebook post and got in touch with their friends, two university professors who were moving back East and imminently needed to sell their 1993 Toyota Camry. We felt we could trust their word, and decided to go with the car despite the fact that we thought it was a bit expensive.

Things to think about when buying used in California

Resale value

Conventional wisdom would have it that California cars, untouched by rust thanks to the warm and dry climate, are rather desirable little gems throughout the Rust Belt and the East Coast, where harsh winters and constant salt baths quickly eat away the bodies of vehicles. And this is true to an extent. But the thing is, used cars in California are just so much more expensive than in the Midwest and the East. And people are going to be reluctant to pay too much for early- to mid-90s cars, despite their fantastic condition, exactly because they’re not used to seeing them in such fantastic condition. There’s not really a market for them.

Registration

California requires vehicle registration to be renewed every year, which involves getting a smog check (see below) and paying extra fees that you, a non-resident traveller, probably don’t wanna deal with. Your best bet is to find a vehicle with registration that is valid at least until the end of your trip, as the license plates will come with the car when it’s sold to you.

Smog check

Smog checks are like a “lite” version of a German TÜF or British MOT. Some dodgy mechanic checks to make sure a car’s emissions are below levels set by the state government, and charges you money to diagnose and fix the problem if the car isn’t up to snuff.

California requires all vehicles to go through a smog check once per year in order to renew the registration, but they also require all vehicles sold in-state to have valid smog certificates. Smog certificates are good for 90 days after the check, which means a smog check must be done a maximum of three months before the sale.

Smog checks are supposed to be the responsibility of the seller, but you may be able to negotiate a cheaper price if you choose to take responsibility.

 

Your best bet for an easy vehicle is to find one that has a valid registration and a valid smog certificate. That way, there’s no wasting time and money with extra paperwork, and you can hit the road straight away.

You’ve scored a ride! Now it’s time to transfer the title

All purchases and title transfers must be completed within 10 days of the date written on the old title or you risk incurring “penalties” (no idea what they are). In order to transfer the vehicle you’ll need an in-state address, preferably that of a friend or family member, or maybe a nice Couchsurfer or Airbnb host. The DMV will send the new title to this address, and you will need to have the title sent to your final destination in order to sell the car.

Title transfer can be done at any DMV in the state. You can search online for available appointments to avoid wasting your time in the epitome of American bureaucratic hell. Although we bought our car in LA, we decided to head off to San Francisco right away and made an appointment at a DMV in nearby San Jose for the day we planned to arrive.

At the time of purchase, you should receive a minimum of three documents from the seller:

  • The old Certificate of Title (also known as a “pink slip”)
  • The bill of sale
  • A valid smog certificate

Title transfers cost $15, a fee you’ll pay on top of any sales tax from the purchase. Sales tax is calculated based on the municipality where the car will be registered (some cities have an additional tax on top of California state sales tax) and the sale price written on the title documents. It’s worth it to try and negotiate with the seller to write a low (but still believable) price. Gifting a vehicle—essentially selling it for $1—is usually only done between family members, and will probably raise flags with the tax man if attempted between two strangers.

We registered our vehicle within Los Angeles County, which has a 1.5 percent tax on top of California’s 7.5 percent tax. With a sale price of $1000, we paid $90 in taxes. Add in the $15 transfer fee, and we ended up paying an additional $105 on top of what we payed the seller for the car.

Insurance

Insurance is mandatory for all drivers in the United States, and proof of insurance must be carried in the car at all times. Each state has different requirements for insurance minimums, but you are only required to meet the minimum of the state that the car is registered in.

It’s difficult to give advice on which company is best because, at the end of the day, they’re probably all about the same. The most important thing is to have proof of insurance to show if you’re ever stopped by police.

Depending upon how long you’re in the country for, it might be wise to choose an insurance plan with either monthly, quarterly, or yearly payments. Quarterly and yearly payments will be cheaper, but monthly payments mean you’re forking out less money up-front. All insurance plans are pro-rated, meaning if you cancel your policy before the end of the contract, the company must refund you the unused amount. For example, if your policy is $90 per month but you cancel after one week, you will be refunded $69 for the 23 unused days. Most insurance companies charge a fee for early cancellation; confirm this before signing up.

The big catch with insurance is that it’s relatively expensive to insure a driver who doesn’t have a US driver’s license. Regardless of how long you’ve held your license in your home country, on an international license your insurance premium will be calculated from the day you arrived in the USA. And some insurance companies won’t even deal with foreign drivers.

In our case, we ended up going with Geico because they were happy to provide insurance to foreign drivers at a higher rate, and said that they could reduce that rate if we could provide proof that the driver in question has been licensed in his home country for several years. Proving this involves emailing the company a copy of the home driver’s license and/or getting a notarised driving record from the DMV-equivalent back at home. Contact the company for more details.

Insurance should be valid from the moment you sign up, so print out the “evidence of insurance” sheet that you get via email and you’re good to go!

Meet Penny

Meet Penny!!

After some arduous searching (and spending too long in LA), we finally managed to secure a fantastic little ride for our journey across the USA. Sure, a rent-a-car would have been easier, but travelling with Penny gives us the freedom we need to enjoy Murrikuh!!! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Have you bought a car on the West Coast and travelled across the States? Any other tips? Let us know in the comments!



There are 4 comments

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  1. Brent

    How did you register/insure a car without a US (specifically CA) address? Looks like you got a pretty good deal on a decent car. Really can’t go wrong with the way you found it. Good luck with your trip! Enjoying it vicariously through the ‘puter.

    • Semi

      Thanks Brent 😀

      A US address is necessary to transfer the title and get insurance, but it doesn’t really matter whose address it is as long as the person who receives it is willing to send the DMV documents to the east coast.

    • Semi

      Hi Arthur! We only insured for one driver (me) only because Mook hadn’t had his license at the time for longer than two years and it would have increased the premium. The insurer we went with (Geico iirc) said they had no problem insuring multiple drivers and drivers from other countries, though.


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