Buying a car across state lines should be a slam dunk, right? After all, cars that are okay to sell in the United States should meet the same criteria regardless of where you are domiciled. Or so the thinking goes.
Unfortunately cars that are registered in one state, purchased by a buyer who lives in another state, and then registered in the owner’s state may not automatically be accepted by the receiving state. Indeed, in all states you will have to follow certain official procedures before the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will issue you a registration and tags, as well as allow you to transfer title. And in some states there are extra steps to take before your vehicle is approved.
In Most States
Keep in mind that the information being shared here is general to most states. Given that the states are responsible for setting the rules regarding motor vehicles, the procedures may differ somewhat from where you live. Ultimately, you need to contact your state’s DMV or equivalent department and carefully follow those procedures.
If you do buy a vehicle in another state and plan to register it in your state, you usually have about 30 days to complete that transition. In some states, you will be required to have your vehicle inspected first and pass that inspection. You will also be required to obtain insurance and pay fees or taxes to your tax assessor before having it registered and titled in the new state.
When visiting the DMV, bring the required documents with you. Typically, these will include the proof of inspection, an insurance document that meets your state’s minimum liability requirements, an odometer reading, the title from the previous state, a valid registration and proof of taxes or fees paid. Usually, there is a document or an application that must be filled out and a list of fees to be paid. That form should be available at your DMV office as well as online. Most states, however, require you to take the completed form, related documents and your payment to the DMV for personal review and approval by a clerk.
Residents of California have additional hurdles to jump through when buying a vehicle from another state. Beside the California DMV, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) has a say in how this feat is accomplished.
For example, if you are a California resident and are buying a new car from another state, it must be certified to meet California’s rigorous smog laws before it can be registered in the Golden State. A new vehicle is defined as any vehicle with fewer than 7,500 miles on the odometer when it was purchased.
What the state of California wants to ensure is that the vehicle you are bringing to the state is California certified. Fortunately, this is easy to verify by lifting the hood and reviewing the emissions label fixed to the inside of the hood. That label will state one of two things. If the label says that the vehicle is 49-state certified, that means it meets federal emissions standards, but not California’s tougher standards. Alternatively, the vehicle may be 50-state or California-certified, which means that no additional work beyond the normal registration procedure is required.
However, if your new car is not California certified, then you will need to have it tested by a smog station. If it fails the test, then expect to pay for whatever modifications are required before it can be certified. You can only hope that you won’t be replacing one of the pricier parts on your car to make it compliant, such as the catalytic converter.
Fortunately, there are some exceptions that California residents should be aware of. First, 50-state certification is exempt if the new vehicle was obtained as part of a legal separation, a divorce or an inheritance. Second, if your car replaces your California-registered vehicle that was stolen when operating it out of state, then that vehicle is exempt too. Other exemptions apply to California-registered vehicles that are destroyed while traveling out of state, as well as emergency vehicles or vehicles that are registered by you in another state while in military service.
Buying a used vehicle and registering it in California should not pose as much of a challenge for the new owner, but keep in mind that it may need to pass a smog inspection. This is required for gas-powered vehicles from the 1975 model year or newer, as well as for diesel-powered vehicles from the 1997 model year or newer. Electric and natural gas-powered cars are exempt from this requirement.
Local Emissions Requirements
California may be leading the way in strict emissions requirements, but they are not alone. Eleven other states have since adopted California’s Motor Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards, and another six may follow suit.
So, the bottom line is this when buying any passenger vehicle outside of your state: know your local emissions requirements to ensure that the car, truck, van, SUV, pickup or other passenger vehicle you are considering is already compliant. If not, you may have to jump through additional bureaucratic hoops to get it certified and pay the costs related to meeting said compliance.