Moving cross-country, will need car--but when and where?
March 24, 2014 4:52 PM   Subscribe

In a few months I will be moving across the country from Delaware to California for a year to maybe indefinitely. In which state should I buy a car and how should it be paid for? (Snowflake details below the cut.)

I'm finishing up undergrad on the East Coast and have a job lined up--yay!--in California. I am currently a Delaware resident, although I attend college out-of-state, with a DE driver's license listing my parents' home address, and I only drive one of their cars when I'm home on breaks. But soon I will be starting a full-time job on the other side of the country and will need a car... the question is: when, where, and how do I acquire it?

Some possible scenarios I've considered:

1) Fly to CA and buy a car when I get there. Pros: don't need to deal with import regulations or retroactively paying sales tax(?). Cons: it's probably more expensive to buy a car in CA (9.5% sales tax) than in DE (no sales tax, 3.75% title document fee).

2) Buy a car in DE and have it driven eventually to CA by a friend (who needs to make this drive anyway and would appreciate the loan of a one-way vehicle). I would fly to his final destination 3/4 across the country--which I will be visiting regardless--and drive my car the rest of the way to CA. In this case, I'm not sure whether I should be registering the car in DE or CA... it would take about 2 weeks to get the car from one state to the other, and I may not have time to go to the DMV immediately.

3) My parents (living in DE) have offered to buy me a car as a graduation present, and they are willing to keep me on their insurance. There's a non-zero possibility that I will be moving back East after a year in CA and becoming a full-time student in a city where I'd no longer need a car, at which point I'd return the car to them. If the car is in their name, would it be kosher to keep me on their insurance as the primary driver of a car garaged in CA? If so, do/can/should I register this car in CA?

In short: Can I save money on tax/registration/insurance, legally, if I acquire a car in DE before moving to CA?
posted by serelliya to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total)
I don't know about the tax/registration stuff but if you buy the car outside Cali you need to make sure it'll pass CA smog emissions tests to register it here. Even a new car may not have the appropriate emissions package - you need a "50 state emissions" package.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:01 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you have to pay the tax difference ("use tax") when you move to California so you don't really save. I think this is specifically to discourage people from buying cars in states with lower/no sales tax.
posted by radioamy at 5:06 PM on March 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I did this a little more than a year ago.

I ultimately decided to fly to California and buy a car when I got here.

I rented a car for a week to give me time to settle in and go car shopping. It worked perfectly -- in fact I was even able to return the car a few days early and save a little cash.

The way I decided to do this was that I priced out how much it would cost to drive cross country from New York to CA. It turned out to be the most expensive way of relocating, out of all the options I considered. While there might be some slight differences in car prices or sales tax or whatever, those savings were more than canceled out compared to the expense of getting the car to California.

Another point in California's favor is that cars here typically don't have rust damage, if you were planning on buying a used car.

You will definitely have to register the car in California and pay taxes on it.

I can't come up with really any reasons to buy in Delaware, unless the car was going to be free or something.
posted by Sara C. at 5:08 PM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's some details from the CA DMV about the emissions stuff.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:10 PM on March 24, 2014

#2 seems like a good option, but Cali does have restrictions on emissions that other states don't. That could make it difficult to find a compliant car if you're buying (presumably) used on the East coast.

The cost of driving the car across country, not to mention the wear and tear it'll put on the vehicle wouldn't make it worth it though. After a nearly 3,000 mile trek, the car would undoubtedly need some maintenance performed too.

I'd go with #1 and have done something similar (moved from CO to WA; flew to WA; bought the car in WA).
posted by stubbehtail at 5:27 PM on March 24, 2014

There is an amount of time that if you own the car before moving in, you no longer have to pay CA sales tax (sorry I forget how long). You will need an inspection and registration. If it's a used car you are seeking, Californian vehicles will have much less (ie no) winter wear.

You will need a CA license (technically within 30 days or so). You will have to give California a thumb print to get one and pass a multiple choice quiz (take the practice quiz online).
posted by Phredward at 6:14 PM on March 24, 2014

Oh yeah, Phredward reminded me that California's drivers license test isn't particularly difficult but some of the questions are weird. Definitely spend an hour or two reading the book and taking the test online.
posted by radioamy at 7:21 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I did something similar, but with leasing a car. Do you really want to drive for four days to California? If you buy or lease a car from a dealership here, at least they will take care of all your registration and everything. And you are supposed to re-register the car in the new state and pay taxes anyway, at least that what I've heard, so I would do what is easiest. I was on my mom's insurance when I lived in another state with a car that she technically owned and it wasn't a problem. But then I got in an accident and her insurance went way up... Sorry, mom.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:57 PM on March 24, 2014

Would you be buying a used car? Used cars from CA might be in better shape because the weather is different here (no snow, assuming you're not moving anywhere North of the Bay Area.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:01 AM on March 25, 2014

You will have to pay the difference. Just buy in CA.
posted by k8t at 2:39 AM on March 25, 2014

I think you should buy a car in Delaware and register it / inspect it / insure it at your parents' address in Delaware (which is presumably the address on your drivers' license). You don't know if you'll be in CA indefinitely or temporarily. You'll probably have to pay the difference between the DE title tax and the CA sales tax when you register it in CA, but (a) it will be on the blue book value, which will be less in a year than it is now, and (b) if you move back to DE in a year you won't be out on the CA sales tax and have to re-register in DE.

If you don't want to drive cross-country, you can use a vehicle shipping service (such as DAS).

If your move to CA turns out to be permanent, THEN you can switch your license and registration to CA. If it's temporary, well, you're already registered in DE.

I've lived in several states and thus moved cars among several states. I paid no sales tax at all on one of my cars because I bought it in New Hampshire where I lived at the time, registered it there, and a year later moved to MA -- MA requires you to pay the difference unless you've had it registered elsewhere for more than 6 months and met the sales tax requirements of that state. So do some research on the CA DMV website to see if they have a similar "statute of limitations" for the tax.

CA and DE DMVs, as well as your insurance company, should be able to help you with this, but both will probably say you should register the car in their state (so they get their money). I had a co-worker in MA who had his car registered and insured at his parents' address in VA, but he had to get a MA insurance policy and return to VA once a year for the safety/emissions inspections. And MA is *anal* about allowing out-of-state registrations because they have an annual property tax on cars (then again, so does VA). There are legal ways to do it, but it depends on the states involved and I don't know enough about DE or CA to advise you.
posted by tckma at 1:42 PM on March 25, 2014

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