Eight Tips for Buying a Car Out of State

Venturing to another state may yield a better deal, but make sure you’re prepared.

Woman staring into window of driver's seat of car she wants to buy with sticker of car detailsGetty Images

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With limited supply and high demand, the current car market may have you casting a wide net to find a new or used vehicle. If you’re willing to travel to pick up a car or pay to have it shipped, you’ll find a lot more choices if you’re open to buying a car out of state; plus, you may save a few bucks. But before you change your search parameters, you’ll want to know everything that’s involved with cross-state vehicle purchases. Here are some essential tips to help you.

1. Ask for Lots of Pictures and Video

You want to feel confident about your purchase, and asking the seller for plenty of high-res pictures—particularly of any damaged areas—can allay your doubts. If you’re still unsure, ask the seller for a live walk-around of the vehicle using a video chat program like Apple FaceTime, Google Hangouts, or Zoom. That way you can ask questions in real time.

2. Get a Pre-Purchase Inspection for a Used Car

Obtaining a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) is a smart decision when looking at any used car, but it’s especially important when buying a car out of state. A car may look great in pictures or on video, but it could have some unfortunate and potentially costly stories to tell. For a relatively small fee (usually an hour or two at a shop’s standard rate), a qualified mechanic will check out the electrical system, put the car up on a lift to look for leaks and hidden damage, and take it for a test drive to evaluate its handling, ride, and acceleration.

The seller may suggest a specific shop or dealership for the PPI, but it’s best to do your own research, finding a place in the area and arranging the visit yourself. This helps ensure that the mechanic is working on your behalf, not the seller’s. Lastly, if the seller is unwilling to accommodate a PPI, that’s a red flag.

3. See if the Seller Will Hold the Car for You

If you’re willing to travel to see a vehicle in person but worry someone else might swoop in to buy it in the meantime, ask the seller—be it a dealer or private party—if they’ll hold the car for you in exchange for a deposit. Make sure to confirm that it’s refundable in case the car isn’t as described or you change your mind upon inspection and that the deposit will apply to the final price of the vehicle if you proceed with the transaction. It’s best to get this in writing via email.

4. Be Sure You Can Legally Drive the Car Home

If you decide to pick up the car yourself, you need to keep a few things in mind. First, let’s consider if you’re flying in and buying a car off a lot. In that instance, the dealership will likely be willing to send someone to pick you up at a nearby airport. You’ll want to confirm ahead of time that the dealership will provide a temporary license plate so you can legally drive the car home. You’ll also need to add the car to your insurance. (If you’re traveling on a weekend, you should contact your insurer a day or two early, just in case.)

If you complete a private-party sale, transporting a car across state lines can be trickier, since the seller can’t issue you a temporary license plate. The best way to avoid unwanted attention is to load the car on a trailer and tow it home. If that’s not an option, you can drive it, but first contact the department of motor vehicles in every state through which you’re planning to drive and confirm what paperwork you need to carry. Many states offer a grace period during which you can legally move the car before you register it, but you’ll need valid insurance and a dated bill of sale signed by you and the seller.

5. Turn Your Car-Buying Trip Into a Vacation

If you’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon and the car is in Phoenix, buying a car out of state is your chance. If you’re on the fence about taking a road trip, compare the cost of transporting the car—including fuel, overnight accommodations, the time off work, and/or flights/train tickets to get there (and back, if you don’t buy the car)—with that of having it shipped.

6. Consider Shipping the Car

If shipping winds up fitting your budget and schedule, a wide number of trucking companies stand ready to collect the vehicle from the seller and bring it directly to you. Dealerships likely have experience with this and can help arrange pickup and delivery. If you find yourself needing to work out arrangements on your own, numerous online brokers will shop around for the best deal on your behalf.

7. Look Closely at Taxes and Registration

Unless you live in a state that doesn’t levy a sales tax, you will need to pay taxes on the car when you go to register it. Dealerships will be aware of this, and in some cases, they may collect your state’s taxes for you, allowing you to roll it into a loan. If they don’t, though, be aware that you may be on the hook for a big check when you go to your motor vehicle registration office.

8. Don’t Forget About Emissions Testing

Many areas require vehicles to undergo periodic emissions testing (aka smog testing). Even brand-new cars may not be exempt in some states. While cars two years old or younger without performance modifications should have no issue passing these tests, older models may not have the region-specific equipment necessary to pass a visual inspection.

When in doubt, contact the automaker's customer-service department or your state’s emissions testing service to determine the vehicle’s compliance. A sticker under the hood will also indicate if the car was originally built to 50-state or market-specific emissions standards.

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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz has had cars in his blood ever since he gnawed the paint off of a diecast model as a toddler. After growing up in Dallas, Texas, he earned a journalism degree, worked in public relations for two manufacturers, and served as an editor for a luxury-lifestyle print publication and several well-known automotive websites. In his free time, Andrew loves exploring the Rocky Mountains' best back roads—when he’s not browsing ads for his next car purchase.