Baby, you can drive my car, but I have to find one first.
July 27, 2012 11:28 AM   Subscribe

How do I buy a car?

I'm in the market for my very first car. I have no idea how this is supposed to work, though apparently it's something that people half my age do all the time.

The plan is to buy a car here in New York and drive it across the country to Los Angeles, where I will be living (and continuing to operate said vehicle). I have a previous AskMe sort of along these lines, wherein it was suggested I wait to buy the car until I get to California. I had originally planned to do it that way, but there are a lot of logistical problems I didn't foresee. Logistical problems that, to me, outweigh the inconvenience of ultimately needing to register the car in CA.

Vital Info:

I'm in the market for a used car, but I probably will need financing. I'd like to put about $2000 down, and pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000. I'm thinking a reliable-enough compact with decent-enough mileage. Looking especially at a Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, something like that. In an ideal world my dream car would probably be a Subaru Imprezza, but I don't think I'll find one in my price range.

I have decent enough credit, but not great. My credit is mainly dinged because of not enough credit, not outstanding debt. (I have no debt and pay my credit card balance in full every month.) I'm hoping to be able to finance through my bank. How good does one's credit need to be in order to get an auto loan through a bank? If I don't qualify, should I try to finance at a legit dealership, or just go straight for the usurious rent-to-own "Buy Here Pay Here" dealerships? How do I do this without getting dinged hard for all those credit checks?

I probably have better credit than your average eighteen year old trying to buy their first car. Being in my thirties, it seems stupid to get a co-signer, but I guess I could suck it up and ask my parents, if that's the done thing.

I will be between freelance gigs when I buy the car. Should I provide pay stubs from my long history of previous employment, or is that not important? Is my status as a freelancer a dealbreaker for getting a car loan? I am not "unemployed" in the formal sense and have no worries about being able to make loan payments.

Can I buy a used car from an individual seller with a bank auto loan? How does that work?

How do I find a reputable dealer? I live in Brooklyn, so it's not like there are a ton of car dealerships that I see every day and could tell "this is a good place" vs. "this is a nasty scam artist".

I know all about how to find a reliable car, what makes and models are good, taking it to an independent mechanic to get it checked out, carfax, kelley blue book values, etc etc etc. Previous questions have been helpful on all of those topics.

Insurance. How does it work? Do I have to set something up before I buy the car? Do I drive my new car home and then go online and insure it? From my scant knowledge of car insurance, it seems like they charge you for several months or even a year at a time? Do I have to pay that in one lump sum?

Registration. I'll be registering the car in New York. How do I do that? Is this something I do in advance of driving away in the car, or is there some kind of grace period? If I buy from an individual seller, is there extra stuff I need to do before I can register the car? Is there any weird little red tape thing I need to be sure of before I take possession of the car, aside from making sure it's in good working order?

Car title. WTF even is that? Is it the same as registration or a different bit of paperwork that has to be done?

How much money should I set aside for upfront insurance, registration, and other incidental costs related to buying a car?

In my mind, this is how this all works:

Sustained online research of makes, models, reliability, kbb values, etc etc etc.

Obtain approval on a bank loan for roughly the amount I intend to spend. (i.e. ~$8000)

Go to a dealership, look around, maybe test drive some stuff. Maybe use the test drive to take it to a mechanic of my choice?

When I find something I'm happy with, formalize the financing, sign some stuff, drive away.

Register car. Insure car. Think about stuff like AAA, cross-country driving routes, etc.


(also then later re-registering the car in CA, which I'm very aware of and is somewhat tangential to this question since there's great info on it elsewhere.)

Is there anything else VITAL to the process that I'm missing, here? Anything I need to be doing beforehand that I'm not considering? Any last-ditch reason this is a terrible option and I need to just buy the car in CA? Am I massively overthinking all of this?
posted by Sara C. to Travel & Transportation (29 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I bought a used car in New York (state) a few years ago and was required to have an insurance binder in order to drive away with the car. I also got a temporary registration with the car when I purchased it--that may be enough to get you from NY to CA.

As for costs, I'd investigate how much the Costco-discounted Ameriprise insurance will cost. For me, it saves $1000 a year--well more than the cost of a Costco membership.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:35 AM on July 27, 2012

Any last-ditch reason this is a terrible option and I need to just buy the car in CA? Am I massively overthinking all of this?

Yes, you are overthinking this, but that's not a terrible thing and probably will save you some money. I would still suggest you buy in CA (perhaps renting a car for the drive across, if you need to transport cats or houseplants or whatever), for two reasons:

1) With your current plan, you will be paying twice to register the car, which is not cheap. Plus you'll have to go through the insurance process twice, the emissions testing, etc, all of which is a hassle and will have a certain cost in money and time to do twice.

2) Used cars in New York state come with free bonus rust from all the road salt, which no one there seems to care much about and doesn't hurt the value of the car. In CA, there is almost no salt used on the roads, cars don't get rusty, and cars with east coast rust are not easy to sell. (And cars in NYC itself tend to come with free bonus dents as well, which are also not considered great when selling elsewhere.)

Regarding loans, yes, start with your bank, then check local credit unions, then go with the dealer. Others may disagree, but I'd be inclined to suggest that if you can't get a conventional, low-interest car loan you should go to a Plan B which does not involve paying usurious interest rates.
posted by Forktine at 11:44 AM on July 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

The easiest car-buying experience I ever had went like this:

1. Ask MetaFilter what car I should get based on my specific criteria.

2. Consult Consumer Reports to determine exactly what car I wanted (year, make model).

3. Examine local dealer stock via their online inventories and determine what the going rate was for the year/make/model I wanted.

4. Get auto loan from the credit union offering the lowest rate, get blank check from CU to take to dealership.

5. Identify the top 3 vehicles available in the area that look like the best match.

6. Make appointments to test drive those cars, pick the best one, negotiate price with your blank check in hand (you should be able to get them to knock at least a little off the price, don't be afraid to leave if they don't), leave with car.

Now, I already had an insurance policy so it was easy to add another with a quick phone call, but you'll have to make those arrangements beforehand. Do you have any insurance company relationships with companies that also offer auto insurance? If so I'd start there. The registration and titling stuff is paperwork that you'll probably be able to do at the dealership. You also know that you need to find a car that meets CA smog requirements or whatever, so that's also an extra thing that I don't know about.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:46 AM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Definitely have insurance set up first. You can just get general insurance and then call your insurance company from the dealer after you've completed the purchase but before you drive up.
posted by radioamy at 11:47 AM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: I know some of this. A lot of it you may be able to answer through looking at the NY DMV FAQ. One of the reasons this sort of thing can be confusing is that many of the laws vary significantly from state to state. So for example in MA insurance is state regulated meaning that all basic insurance costs the same and you need proof of insurance to register your car. In Vermont insurance is not state regulated meaning you can have a vehicle that is legally registered but not insured [note: not having insurance and driving the car is itself illegal but that's a separate problem]. Some states also have mandatory inspection and some states have mandatory emissions inspections on top of that. Additionally if you buy a car with a loan, your lender may have additional requirements on top of the other ones you have. So, here are some outlines.

- Title - this is the "who really owns the car" piece of paper and it's a thing you get when the car is yours free and clear and keep in a safe place NOT IN THE CAR. When you sell the car, you have to go through a legal process of transferring the title. When you buy a car someone goes through the process of transferring the title to you. A car could be titled to one person and insured by another, for an example, but if something sketchy happens the name on the title is the "buck stops here" Here is the NY DMV FAQ on titles. The title may be in the name of your lender if you get a loan. It's a big legal document so it may take some time to process, but your major concern is that the owner of the car have the title, that there are no liens on the title and that you get it transferred to your name as soon as possible.

- Insurance - someone else can speak to this but this FAQ makes it look like the insurance/registration thing in NY are linked, the same way they would be in MA. While many people buy cars and drive them home uninsured and then call places to insure them, this is risky and a potential big mess. Once you've ascertained that you're going to buy the car you should be able to call an insurance company [or several] and get some quotes for the minimum level of coverage you will need in NY. If you drive without insurance in NY it looks like they can not only suspend your registration but also your driver's license. This would be terrible. I'd also suggest uninsured motorist insurance [if it's not mandatory] because it's a good thing to have.

Can't help you with costs since I mostly know them for MA, WA and VT but the DMV, though byzantine is usually a decent place to look for all licensing and registration and titling questions and it seems like they can answer insurance questions up til the "how do I buy insurance?" point.
posted by jessamyn at 11:49 AM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: "Car title. WTF even is that? Is it the same as registration or a different bit of paperwork that has to be done?"

Title is a piece of paper that says "I own this expensive and stealable piece of property, not that other guy who is attempting to steal it!"

Registration is a piece of paper that says, "This car may be legally driven and has up-to-date license plates and things of that nature that make the state less-nervous about me driving it around."

Usually you keep the title somewhere safe that is NOT in the car! (Safe deposit box, firebox, filing cabinet, people differ) The registration goes in the glove box to show the nice cop when he pulls you over.

Do you currently have renter's insurance or similar? If you insure through a comprehensive insurer (home/auto/life/etc), you can call your existing insurer and ask about their process. You typically get a discount for insuring your house/apartment AND your car with one company. When I bought my most recent car my insurer provided a certificate of "yes we will insure this car" to the seller, and mailed me a temporary certificate to carry in my glove box until my first insurance card and attendant bill arrived after the title transfer went through (which the seller faxed the insurer something that said I'd bought the car for real). It all seemed rather complicated but all I had to do was call my insurer once and then wait for the bill in the mail, they did all the back-end stuff amongst themselves.

FYI, I bought my most recent used car through Hertz Rent-2-Buy, which sells used rental cars. There's a pretty significant discount off the blue-book value because they're used rentals. The paint had a fair number of scratches and dings, which I could care less about because I will immediately ding any new car by rolling a stroller into it, but the mechanical guts of the car are in perfect shape and were well-maintained by the rental car company. The way it worked was, I got to rent the specific car I wanted to buy for three days, and if I liked it, I just kept it and started the paperwork to buy it and the rental fee was applied to the price of the car; if I didn't want it, I returned it and just paid the normal rental fee. It was a great way to do it because I got to "rent" the car over a long weekend when I visited family, so I got to test it out with car seats and luggage and long-distance driving, as well as in-city driving, and get a feel for it over three days ... and have it checked out by my parents' well-trusted mechanic of 30 years, who gave it a thumbs-up. Then I just clicked the button in the e-mail that said, "Yep, I want to buy this!" and did the buying of the car via FedExing stuff back and forth and doing a wire transfer for the money ... but I had the car in my possession through that entire process. They had options for paying cash, financing through your bank or credit union, or financing through Hertz. Most big rental companies have a similar process for selling used rental cars. It's mostly rental-fleet type cars, but it sounds like those might be up your alley (and in your price range). Memail me if you want more details about my experience.

(I would have picked up and returned in one place, but you could find out if you could "rent" it in New York, drive it to L.A., and return it there if you decided not to buy it.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:59 AM on July 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: As far as the order of the process, you will need to check the specific rules for NY, which I am sure are available on their DMV website. I have purchased cars in three different states, and they all have their own preferred ways of doing things. In Mass, for example, you have to show proof of insurance before you can obtain license plates, and they don't do temporary plates at all (which is really annoying). So see what NY says.

The title is the piece of paper that says who owns the car. If you are financing, the title will be held by your lienholder until you pay off the car. But you usually still have to pay a title fee when you buy the car. Registration is what makes the car legal to drive, and how you get your plates. Has to be renewed every year. Many states require vehicle inspection, which may have to be done before or after the registration (again, check the NY laws - also CA is notorious for their high emissions standards, so I would suggest you check really hard to make sure your used car bought in NY will actually meet those CA standards).

We just bought a new car (as in, took it home yesterday!), and we financed through our credit union. We might have been able to get a technically better deal through the dealer, but we were able to get the loan approved in advance of deciding on the specific car/dealer, so that made things a little easier (because we knew the exact amount we could spend). We also liked the idea of helping the non-profit credit union. So I would suggest trying the bank or credit union first. I am also wary of the things some dealers try to tack on when you are financing through them.

As I already had a car that we were trading in, we just switched that on our existing insurance. In the past, however, I have gotten quotes from different insurers (maybe 2 or 3). Most of them have online quotes you can do, but you will need to know usually at least the make, model and year of the car to get a quote. Also, insurance rates vary a LOT by where you live, so your quote for NY may be very different from CA, and CA may require different kinds of insurance (you would need to check). So that might be another reason just to get the car in CA.
Insurance payments will vary - policies are in 6 month increments usually, but many of them have payment plans. You will have to pay at least something up front, however. You will have to check with your lienholder, but they usually require cars to have comprehensive coverage for the duration of the loan. You will also have to decide what kind of a deductible you want to carry.

You will also have to pay sales tax on your car. On the car we just bought, our credit union would not pay for the taxes & fees, just the price of the car, so we had to pay that amount separately upfront.

Our credit union has something they call a "ReadyCheck" for car loans. We got approved for the loan, and then they issued us this essentially blank check, which we then wrote to the dealer in the amount of the car. So that would be one way you could buy through an individual seller, if you have a bank or credit union that offers that type of service. The seller just deposits the check in their bank, and you sign a promissory note with yours for the exact amount of your loan.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:00 PM on July 27, 2012

If you are a AAA member, they can put you n touch wth no haggle dealers.
posted by brujita at 12:04 PM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: I prefer to do business with dealerships. I had a great experience buying an Acura Integra from Enterprise Rental Car Sales. There's one in Queens and one in New Rochelle. My parents did well at Carmax Yes, you pay a bit more, but a dealer has to stand by his product more than a buy-here, pay-here sleeze ball.

You will have a street of nothing but dealerships in California. You can walk from one to another if you like. Stevens Creek Blvd in San Jose is an example.

Most dealerships will have their inventory on-line so you can go in and ask for specific vehicles.

Try and get a car that still has some Factory Warantee on it. Don't buy an extended warantee from the dealer, you can buy that directly.

As for the price, remember that you'll have to pay for tax and title. Tax on $10,000 can be an additional $800. (depending on your tax rate.) Registration, taxes, etc, will be another $700 or so. You'll end up paying about $700 extra in registration, taxes, etc doing it twice.

Practice saying no. No to the extended warantee. No to undercoating. No to framistannie surcharge. You get the idea.

I'm with the others, you are at a huge disadvantage doing this in New York. Rent a minivan for your cross country adventure.

You won't get a title if you finance your car, whomever finances the car will hold the title/pink slip, until you pay it off, then they'll mail it to you. They're the lien holder.

As for insurance, typically when you finance a car, the company will require you to have comprehensive as well as liability. Comprehensive insurance pays for damages to the vehicle, Liability pays for injuries to people in an accident.

If you have a relationship with your credit union, that's the best place to start for financing. My credit union used to have relationships with auto dealers and could provide special pricing etc, if I bought my vehicle there. If you don't bank at a credit union, try your bank. It's always better to go in with your financing than to deal with the dealership.

Priceline has deals with National for a MiniVan for $601 for the week. Pick up at LGA, drop off at LAX.

You can plug in whichever airports you like. But that should give you an idea of what it should cost.

Going through the expense and hassle of insurance, registration, taxes, etc is REALLY not worth it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:10 PM on July 27, 2012

First visit your bank and/or credit union, and learn how much you can borrow given your credit history, employment situation and down payment. If you don't qualify for much, get a cosigner rather than going the usurious route.

From your total pool of available cash, deduct likely amounts for insurance, title transfers, inspections, registration, etc. I don't live in NY so I can't guess what these will cost. Whatever amount remains, deduct the relevant sales tax percentage, i.e. if you have $9k left over and the tax rate is 7%, then you have $8370 to spend on the car itself.

Go to or some similar site and get an idea of how much car you buy for that price -- Year, model, options, mileage, condition, etc. Do not rely on advertised prices or the numbers written on windshields, as those are generally very inflated numbers and will mislead you as to what you can afford.

Take that knowledge of what sort of car you should be able to buy for the money you have to spend, and go out looking for the car you want. Ignore the sticker prices; again, they are inflated. Find more than one car that fit the profile, so that you can easily walk away from a bad deal.

Know that every dealer (not just the ones targeting people with bad credit) will take as much of your money as they can. You will pay a large premium if you don't ask questions and negotiate. Don't sign anything at all until you've got every detail of the purchase ironed out to your satisfaction.

Insurance is easily arranged. Bring your agent's phone number along with you; they can probably fax you a binder while you're at the dealership.
posted by jon1270 at 12:14 PM on July 27, 2012

I strongly agree with those who suggest buying the car once you get out west, unless you get a deal on a car that's mostly lived in Florida or somewhere similar on the East Coast that doesn't have the road salt and rust issues. I grew up in the Northeast and moved west 12 years ago. Cars are usually just in better shape out here.

I know my own credit union lends on used vehicles as long as they're no more than 7 years old, so there's that. If your lender has similar restrictions, it's not unthinkable that you could find an Impreza within the eligible year range and your price range, but make sure to get it checked out by a reputable mechanic and give preference to vehicles on which the big things have already been done that these tend to need after a certain point (the timing belt, which is a routine maintenance item, and possibly the head gasket come to mind). Regardless of what car you decide to go with, once you find a car you like, go online and look up the problems that the specific model and year are known for and then see what's already been dealt with on the one you want to buy.

Personally, I've always gone with private-party purchases for this sort of thing (it's cheaper) but had the cars checked out thoroughly.
posted by treblemaker at 12:15 PM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: 1) With your current plan, you will be paying twice to register the car, which is not cheap. Plus you'll have to go through the insurance process twice, the emissions testing, etc, all of which is a hassle and will have a certain cost in money and time to do twice.

Nuh uh. I did this exact thing and only paid the tax once. So, here's what I did:

(1) Bought the car from a guy in NJ (as a Brooklyn resident).
(2) Went to the Jersey City DMV to do the title transfer, and got an "out-of-state purchase temporary registration" or something, which was ~$15 and was a piece of paper taped to the window.
(3) Drove the car to WA within a 30-day window of the DMV visit.
(4) Registered the car in WA normally, paying sales tax there.

The insurance changeover is trivial -- you just go on the GEICO/Progressive/whatever website and hit "change my address." (I found those were the cheapest for NYC.) You will not be required to do emissions.

Frankly I wouldn't take out a loan to buy a used car right before a big move. (Or take out a car loan at all -- never done it and never plan to.)

I would just spend $2500 on a car from a private party, after a mechanic's inspection. (This is what I did, bought a Ford Explorer from a co-worker, drove it across the country with all my crap in it, then sold it six months later for $2100.)

Feel free to MeMail me, since I did this exact thing. :)
posted by zvs at 12:50 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a former car salesman, you can find a TON of info in a bunch of the I've answered in the past but a lot of it will be more about negotiating a car deal and is only tangentially related to your question.

Some random thoughts pertaining to your specific situation:

-Ask around to find a reputable dealer, ask your friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc where they bought their car, what their experience was like. Get a referral to a specific salesperson if you can (and make sure you tell the salesperson who sent you to them).

- Go to you bank/credit union to get pre-approved first if only to find out what kind of rates you might qualify for, how much of an impact having a parent co-sign for you might have on your rate (hint: it might make a huge difference but I don't really know without looking at your credit report and the bank's internal rate sheets), or any other hurdles you might encounter.

- The dealership will very likely be able to get you a better rate than your bank. Depending on where you bank, you might be able to get a better rate through dealer and it will still be with your bank. Here in MN, lots of dealers are signed up to act as extensions of the most popular credit unions in addition to the many banks they work with. The loan on my last car was done at the dealer through Teacher's Federal Credit union and was a better rate than I could have gotten through that CU on my own since they generate WAY more loan volume that I do.

- The order you'll follow in shopping is this, find a salesperson, look at the car, drive the car, if and only if you are prepared to buy that car negotiate the price of that car (contingent on a mechanic's inspection), any issues you have with the car should be addressed in the price negotiation. If the mechanic alerts you to any issues you want fixed, re-negotiate. I would get the work done elsewhere since you have more control over what gets done. For instance, if the car needs new tires and you let the dealer put new tires on it, you can be sure that they'll put on the cheapest tires they can get away with. Presumable you won't be looking at cars that are out of your price range so the price of that exact car shouldn't even come up until you're ready to buy it.

- Remember that everything and I mean EVERYTHING at the dealership that you encounter in the process of buying the car is negotiable. The price, the rate on the loan, the cost of any add-on (service contracts and such though I don't recommend them unless you're getting them at cost and even then it's questionable), everything.

- If you're at a reputable dealer and especially if you've gotten a referral, the salesperson and sales manager can help you a lot with the logistics. They might even be able to find a way to register the car in CA for you (though that's unlikely it doesn't cost anything to ask).
posted by VTX at 12:56 PM on July 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

Oh, and if you DO buy a car and register it in NY [I do not recommend that], they require proof of insurance at the DMV. So bring it before -- I usually just do it online the morning before a title transfer. It's very easy.
posted by zvs at 12:57 PM on July 27, 2012

I bought a car two days ago from Carmax. (I have bought three cars from them now and don't intend to break my streak - it's totally easy-mode car buying.) Here is how it worked:

- went to, searched for the car I wanted. Found it! It was physically at a local store, which was a bonus. (Carmax will ship cars between dealerships - my last car was originally in San Antonio, and my salesguy went down there and picked it up for me.)

- Called to confirm it was actually there. Went out to store. Got hooked up with salesguy. Gave him my license and we took it for a spin. (While this was happening, they were appraising my current car - this is not relevant for you right now, but in the future...)

- Decided I was interested. Sat down in the salesguy's cube, gave him my social and some financial info - how much money I made, what my last couple jobs were, whether I owned or rented, how much my mortgage was. He punched it in, sent it off to the financing division, and came back with a quite reasonable financing package from Carmax Auto Finance. (I could have arranged a loan previous to this with anyone, but I am lazy and have had good experiences with CAF in the past.)

- Picked out extras - warranty, GAP insurance - that are totally optional. The nice thing about Carmax is these are a much softer sell, and they don't bullshit you with trim packages or clearcoats or whatnot. Saying no is a perfectly reasonable choice.

- Salesguy found me the number for Geico (my current insurer) and ran off while I called them and arranged to switch my policy to the new car. They faxed proof of this to the store. (If you didn't have insurance up front, you have some time to arrange it - not much time, but enough to get home and do some comparison shopping.) Note that different states have different minimums for insurance, and different banks may have requirements too (for example, I was not allowed to have a deductible over $500.)

- We went back to the business office and I wrote a check for my down payment and signed a shitload of paperwork. They gave me the temporary registration (and the insurance company faxed my insurance cards.) My plates will arrive in the mail within the 60 days the temp registration covers.

- Some Carmax-specific things: I have five days to return the car, no questions asked, from date of sale. I have (had?) three days to walk in with a loan from somebody else and pay them off, no fees or hassles. (And they made an offer on my current car independent of me buying a car from them.) These things will vary based on your dealership.

- Different states may also have different requirements. Texas has a simple yearly inspection, and the car came inspected, so I don't have to deal with that until next summer. NY and CA are likely to be different from TX and from each other. Make sure you're not buying a car that won't pass inspection in CA.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:57 PM on July 27, 2012

Response by poster: Bottom line, I need a car. This is the priority. Get to Los Angeles and get settled in the most efficient manner possible considering I have almost no resources on the west coast. I agree it's probably more sensible to buy a car in California, but there are just way too many hurdles to jump to make it worth doing.

Concerns like rust, resale value, whether the car I buy has a scratch on it, etc. are just total pie in the sky non-issues. I need to be driving a vehicle that functions in a vehicular type capacity. I'm not going to throw my entire life plan because I might buy a car that doesn't have the absolute bestest resale value in the world.

The Hertz rent-to-own suggestion is great, especially if I go back to the notion of buying a car in CA.

Credit Unions: worth doing only for car financing? I mean, is this a HUGE thing that's going to spell the difference between getting my car or not, or something where I'll save $500 over the life of my car note? I am not interested in the "credit unions are just better" question. Again, the goal here is to obtain a vehicle. Not to die knowing Suze Orman approves of my life choices.

Should I join AAA first, before I do anything else?

How soon before I move should I buy the car? I was thinking I'd buy and then leave the following week or something, but I forgot about the license plate getting mailed to you.

I have to pay all taxes on the car up front? So an additional $1000+ to be able to drive away? Really? Is that, like, best practices in order to save money in the long run, or the rules for buying a car? Again, the goal is to obtain a vehicle. Not to go to heaven.

General side note -- all this sort of ancillary stuff like whether it's better to finance through a credit union or a bank and whether cars on the east coast have more scratches than cars on the west coast makes it so hard to get the lay of the land here. I just want to know how to buy a car. Answers that are about how I'll save $300 if do X instead of Y are frustrating to no end. HOW DO I BUY A CAR. That is all.
posted by Sara C. at 1:07 PM on July 27, 2012

I have to pay all taxes on the car up front?

Yes, when you register the car you pay all the taxes. (That was why I mentioned temporary registration, which lets you defer that until you arrive in CA.)
posted by zvs at 1:14 PM on July 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

How soon before I move should I buy the car? I was thinking I'd buy and then leave the following week or something, but I forgot about the license plate getting mailed to you.

I would actually call the DMV in California and ask about the best process for this, because there is likely to be a specific path that will be cheaper and less of a hassle for everyone. You could register it in NY, drive it across the country on the temporary plate (this is perfectly fine) and then re-register it in California and never use NY plates, but there might be a better way.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:17 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

(The NYSDMV will do this for $12.50. I would not even consider registering it here.)
posted by zvs at 1:19 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Like another user said upthread, everything at a dealership is negotiable. So when I went in to buy my last car, I had exactly $14,000 dollars to spend. With title/registration, tax, etc. etc. it came to about $14,800. I told them that if they brought it down so I was paying $14K including everything, we had a deal, and they agreed to it. So you may get them to "pay" your taxes etc. (aka reduce the cost of the car by that amount).
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:19 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Sorry, I take that back! NY is worse than NJ and requires you to pay sales tax, slightly down the page. So... you're screwed in that respect. Unless you buy in NJ)
posted by zvs at 1:20 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

OK, I have one more thing and I will stop sitting on your thread. California will exempt you for sales tax paid. So here's the process if you buy it in NY:

(1) Get insurance
(2) Get temporary registration from state of NY. Pay NY sales tax and get an interstate permit (Total cost on a $10K car: about $1000)
(3) Drive car to CA within 30 days.
(4) Register car in CA. (Total cost on a 10K car: about $164)

Sorry for my terrible misinformation about how this works on the east side of the Hudson.
posted by zvs at 1:28 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

RE: The actual process of buying a car, has this Guide for First-time car-buyers which breaks down the nuts and bolts of the process. Of course they plug some of their own features/services along the way, but I'd like to think Edmunds is still a pretty reputable source of information. (I worked there 13-14 years ago when it was a still Mom & Pop-sized operation, and can say that their good reputation was very well-deserved then.)

Here is the California DMV's page on registering an out of state vehicle. (Part of a useful-looking broader list of Information for people New to California.)
posted by usonian at 1:29 PM on July 27, 2012

AAA is an excellent organization and in California they offer Auto Insurance. Yes, go on-line and get an AAA membership. It's about $100 annually and worth every penny. If you go to their offices, they'll map your route for you on a Triptik.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:57 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: New York state has some quirky requirements that I haven't seen in the other states where I lived.

For one thing, the person who said you must have an insurance binder before driving away in your new car is right: You're not allowed to not have insurance on that car; for every day you do so, your NY driver's license is suspended. Ask me how I know. Call Geico or whomever, tell them you're going to buy a car and need help. They'll walk you through what you need. It will be a piece of paper you take to the dealer.

If you buy a car at a dealer, they will tell you how the registration & tag process works; don't worry about that stuff. You'll walk out with everything you need. If you buy from a private owner, this NYS DMV page can help.

One thing to understand about the title: It's not something you take with you at the time of sale, even from the dealer. It gets mailed to you, usually months later. (Important to know so that you give your CA address.) If you have a loan, you still get a title, but your financing company is listed there as having lien to the vehicle. It's a piece of paper you keep secure (not in the car). If you were to pay off the loan in NY, you follow the DMV's process for replacing the lien title with the new title that says there is no lien. Once you have that title, put it somewhere safe because on the back of a title is where, if you were to ever do it, you'd sign the car over to someone else. So anyone who has your title can also claim ownership to the car.

AAA is optional but yes, you should definitely have it for a cross country drive. You can get instant membership anytime you want. It's not necessary to do it far in advance of buying the car.

As for loans, do they still do I used it back in 2003 and got multiple offers even though my credit had some time ago been iffy. Multiple offers then = multiple blank checks in the mail along with letters from each lender saying something to the effect of "Write this check for up to $xx,xxx.00 for your new car." I found getting a loan this way to be completely painless. I was also a freelancer back then and was worried my commercial bank wouldn't loan to me.

Good luck! It's really not that complex. 1) Secure loan. 2) Get insurance binder. 3) Go car shopping (I like for used cars) and buy car. 3a) If from a private dealer, you have to do the registration/titling/tag process yourself, following my link above. 4) Call insurance back to update them on make/model/year and get final rate. 5) Get AAA for your trip.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 7:12 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One very important fact that you need to add to your steps on How to Buy a Car:

-if you are buying a car, it must be a 50 state emissions car and be able to pass the emissions test in California.

(from the site: Does this Apply to Someone Moving to California?
"If you are moving to California from another state, you may register a new 49-State vehicle if it was first registered by you in your home state, or for military personnel, in the last state of your military service. When applying for vehicle registration in California, you must provide evidence that the vehicle was registered.")

I'm not sure that NYS' temporary interstate registration, as zvs mentions above, will qualify; you would have to check with the California DMV on that. I know you don't want to think about lots of little details and tricks for buying a car, but this is kind of an important one for California residents or residents-to-be.

In the long run, it will be much easier to live in California and have a 50-state emissions car (smog checks happen every couple of years and Wiki thinks you as a new resident would be specifically required to have a smog check on your car even if it's newer).

As for specifics of getting a car, auto brokers were made for people like you (CarMax, suggested above, is a broker of a sort). You give them a price and some general details, they give you a car (and take a cut off the top, but it sounds like maybe you wouldn't mind that if you could just get the car bought already).
posted by librarylis at 7:29 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Credit Unions: worth doing only for car financing? I mean, is this a HUGE thing that's going to spell the difference between getting my car or not, or something where I'll save $500 over the life of my car note? I am not interested in the "credit unions are just better" question. Again, the goal here is to obtain a vehicle. Not to die knowing Suze Orman approves of my life choices.

The reason you want to obtain credit approval at a bank first is that it makes the car negotiation process easier for YOU.

When you walk on to a dealer lot, and start looking at cars, a lot of them will say to you "how much can you afford per month?" Dealers work with numerous banks to get financing for their customers. For example, if they ask you "can you afford $300 a month?" You might say, "why, yes I can!" What you may not know is that this a $300 a month for 8 years at 12% interest! If you obtain financing prior to going to a dealer at a bank, you already know the length of your loan and the interest rate, so you're able to negotiate on a SINGLE NUMBER (the price of the car). In other words, the dealers have less of an opportunity to confuse with all the numbers floating around.
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 6:31 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OK, OK. I sat down in front of Excel, did the math, and regardless of how inconvenient it will be to wait till I get to California to buy the car, it turns out a cross-country drive is the most expensive way to move out there. Even before we get to the 50 State Vehicle thing.

I'm headed back to the drawing board on the logistical nightmare that is moving cross-country, but I'd like to thank everyone for your amazing advice. This information is going to be extremely helpful when it comes time to actually set foot on my very first car lot, in... wherever Angelenos go to buy cars...?
posted by Sara C. at 5:06 PM on July 29, 2012

Response by poster: Hey, guys, so I bought a car!

I did end up waiting till I got to California to do it, and I ended up paying cash for a cheap little beater of a Honda Civic, which will hopefully hold me until I'm a little more established here and can afford something better.

Now to go make DMV appointments and figure out what all the incidental costs are going to add up to.
posted by Sara C. at 8:02 PM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

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