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What to Do After Buying a Used Car

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If you’re trying to figure out what to do after buying a used car, the answer depends on how you purchased the vehicle. You may be able to save your hard-earned money by skipping a dealership and all its fees, but you potentially face a maze of insurance, title and registration paperwork on your own. It’s important to understand the process around what to do after buying a used car from a dealer or private seller.

What to do after buying a used car: 5 steps

When you buy a car from a private owner, you’re looking at a longer to-do list than if you bought it from a dealership. However, most dealerships charge hundreds of dollars to handle these steps for you.

The good news: Although the paperwork may look daunting, completing it yourself usually isn’t difficult. (If you’re looking for a guide on how to buy a car from a private seller — not just what to do after — check out how to buy a car off Craigslist.)

If you did buy a used car from a dealer, or plan on doing so, you have a much shorter list. You likely only need to follow Steps Nos. 2 and 5, but it doesn’t hurt to familiarize yourself with the steps of buying a used car.

  1. Transfer the title

  2. Get insurance

  3. Get inspections and repairs if needed

  4. Register the car

  5. Put on your tags

Note: The coronavirus pandemic has affected the car-buying process for buyers, dealerships and DMV offices. If you’re looking to buy a used car during the pandemic, make sure to ask throughout the process about what may need to be handled differently. See our auto resources for the coronavirus pandemic for more information.

1. Transfer the title

Transferring the title is simple but vital. A vehicle title, also known as a pink slip, is an official paper showing who owns the car.

Getting the title signed over to you is imperative, because you don’t legally own the car without it. As part of the sale, you and the seller both need to sign the car’s title to transfer ownership. Here are two important notes:

  • Make sure the names match. Check that the name on the title matches the driver’s license of the person selling the car. Only the person on the title can sell the vehicle.
  • Make sure the VINs match. Every car has a vehicle identification number (VIN). Make sure the VIN on the title is the same as the VIN on the car.
If you’re buying a used car at a dealership: You don’t need to worry about this step. The dealer will have you sign the title or the title transfer paperwork at the end of the car-buying process.

2. Get insurance

You’ll want to have auto insurance before you drive your vehicle as the owner. Dealerships may require that you have a policy on the car before you can buy it, but it’s often possible to insure the vehicle after the purchase. The only states where car insurance isn’t mandatory are New Hampshire and Virginia.

To get your best auto insurance when buying a used car from a dealer or private seller, shop around so you can compare quotes from different providers. Some major names in the industry include State Farm, Progressive and Geico. You may feel less pressured and more free to buy insurance online or over the phone rather than going to a provider in person, but it’s up to you.

To get a quote, you’ll have to provide:

  • Personal information, including your name, birth date and ZIP code
  • Vehicle information, including the VIN, year, make and model

Be prepared to give the same type of information each time. It may feel like a chore, but it’ll likely pay off. Before you head off into the sunset on your new wheels, it’s important to get insurance on them.

3. Get inspections and repairs if needed

Some states require that cars pass a safety inspection and/or an emissions inspection for the vehicle to be registered. In Virginia, for example, vehicles must pass an annual inspection. If the vehicle you just bought is overdue for an inspection, you’ll need to get one.

New York, which requires an annual inspection, mandates that vehicles must pass a safety inspection whenever ownership is transferred. If there are extenuating circumstances, you may be able to get an inspection extension depending on the purchase and your state’s rules.

The cost of inspections are usually nominal. In Texas, for example:

  • State inspection: $7
  • Emission inspection: Varies from $11.50 to $25.50 depending on your county and whether it’s required

To discover what your state requires, find your state’s DMV site.

Important: Getting a vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic and fixing any recalls is an important step before you buy from a private seller. Here’s how to navigate an inspection. If you haven’t completed this step, you may want to get it inspected now. Doing this and keeping up with your vehicle’s regular maintenance — mainly oil changes  — could prevent any problems landing you on the side of the road.

If you’re buying a used car at a dealership: You usually don’t need to worry about getting state safety inspections. Because states normally require dealers to register the car as part of the car sales process, dealers must have the car inspected if required for registration.

4. Register the car

The process of registering a car almost always involves a trip to the DMV office. Check out your DMV’s website beforehand to see the required paperwork for buying a used car.

When you make that trip, be sure to bring your wallet to ensure you have everything you need, including any proof of insurance, inspection paperwork and money to pay any sales tax or registration fees.

If you’re buying a used car at a dealership: You’ll see the taxes, license and registration fees you have to pay included in the paperwork. Whether you finance the car or pay for it with cash, these amounts will be disclosed on the purchase order form, which is also called the buyer’s order. If anything looks odd, don’t be afraid to question it. Here are the dealer fees to watch out for when buying a car.

5. Put on your tags

You may need a screwdriver for this step: You should receive your car’s permanent, metal license plates in the mail within 30 days of registering it.

If they don’t come in before the temporary paper plates on the vehicle expire, call the DMV if you bought the car from a private seller, or the dealership where you got the car, to see what the holdup is and ask for an extension.

If you’d like help on how to pick out a used car to buy, visit LendingTree’s best car roundup.


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