Howto buy a used car in California

Tomorrow, if everything goes well, I will buy a used car from an individual in California. Here's a checklist of things for that, to help others in similar situations. Some things may have already been omitted because they weren't relevant for me, so you may want to independently browse the websites I'm using as sources. I'm skipping everything related to finances and haggling. I'm not covering cases where the car isn't in good condition. Also, buying from dealerships is different. Good luck.

(Updated to mention REG 262.)

  1. Find an ad on craigslist or whatever. I liked

  2. Call the seller. Don't just email, start evaluating the seller. Things to ask: (though that list is horribly extensive; I'd rather just pick the three best-looking candidates and do that thing on the spot; you'll need to doublecheck anyway to make sure the seller wasn't lying).

    Ask for:

    • the VIN of the car (usually 17 characters, on windshield)
    • full name of the seller (you'll need it anyway for the check)
  3. Check the CARFAX report for the car. Go for the $24.95 30-day option, you should always look at more than one car.

    • compare odometer, accident history etc with what seller said (better yet, just avoid accident cars, the risk isn't worth it)
    • make sure it's not an old junk car poorly repaired ("salvage" title)
  4. Check the smog check history (fails are a sign of trouble). In California, in most of the cases, the seller is required to provide a certificate of check newer than 90 days old -- it seems the information flow to website is slow enough that this latest check does not show up, or something.

  5. Check that the car hasn't suffered storm damage . (Annoying website demands cookies for a simple form. Suck.)

  6. Make an appointment and go see the car. In good sunlight, you want to see the car.

    • for some things to check, read more , especially On-the-Lot Checklist, Road and Test Checklist

    • you have to drive the car; leave a photocopy of your drivers license if needed for assurance

    • bring a car nut friend who knows what to check; play good cop bad cop (this checklist is not as good, as I am not a car nut)

    • on the lot:

      • paint chips
      • cracked windows
      • accident damage
      • signs of water damage
      • tires
      • check the VIN you were given against windshield, doors, engine, dashboard, major body parts; if they don't match you are dealing with a criminal
    • while driving:

      • brake hard, is it even
      • rev the engine, does it sound healthy
      • make plenty of starts and stops
      • go through a manual gearbox, there should be no grinding noises
      • see if the car will drive straight with your hands off the wheel
      • how does the clutch feel?
      • listen for noises throughout the test drive
    • after driving:

      • check for leaks
    • to be really careful, you should check a lot of things like

      • AC
      • windows up/down
      • radio/cd/speakers
      • etc
  7. Take the car to a mechanic of your choosing for evaluation. Alternatively, choose to trust on service from brand name vendor.

  8. Check the price against Kelley Blue Book etc.

  9. Now you're in business. Only bureaucracy and doublechecking left.

  10. If you know what you're willing to pay, go to your bank and get a cashiers check. Or two alternatives, if that works out. Otherwise, you will need to go back to the bank after haggling, and without a deposit the seller may have sold the car to someone else. Or something. Tuff.

    (Some people say haggling at dealerships is easier if you show up with a cashiers check just a bit short from what they're asking.)

    Don't pay with cash, there's even less chance of getting it back than cancelling a check.

    If you happen to be a seller reading this, do the actual sale in a bank to be sure you aren't being cheated.

  11. Download and print PDF forms from DMV .

    • Bill of Sale (PDF )

    • Statement of Facts may interest you (PDF )

    • things the seller needs: Notice of Release of Liability (PDF )

  12. In California, sellers are required to provide a smog certificate. Make sure you get one. Stuff on smog checks: 1 , 2 , 3 . Frankly, I'm still a bit confused myself when I will need to do a smog check.

  13. Check that the registration is current and that the car wasn't repurchased under the California "Lemon law". (Err, how? As I understand it should say so in the Certificate of Title paper)

  14. The seller should find the "pink slip" aka Certificate of Title

    • if said paper does not have form fields for ownership transfer and odometer reading, you need form "REG 262" from the DMV, which is printed on special paper and not available as PDF. SUCK!

    • check seller name against his drivers license

    • fill it out with both of your info and both sign it; for instructions search for "Where do I sign?" on this page

    • if a bank or something still owns a chunk of the car, their signature is also needed on the pink slip; I'd be inclined to avoid the complexity

    • fill in the odometer value, both sign (read more )

    • seller keeps the Notice of Transfer and Release of Liability part and submits to DMV.

    • buyer fills in the back of the title to transfer ownership

  15. Things to ask for before leaving

    • is a special wheel lug key needed, get it
    • are there extra keys
    • how does the car alarm work
    • on a convertible, how does the roof work
    • any "tricks" you should know
  16. Now you're ready to leave with your new car! Check that you have

    • Certificate of Title, signed by both, also odometer section

    • Bill of Sale, signed by both

    • maintenance records

    • smog certification

    • owners manuals, repair manuals

    • spare tire, jack

    (sources 1 , 2 )

  17. Seller has 5 days to submit Notice of Transfer and Release of Liability to DMV. Do it online .

  18. Buyer has 10 days days to report ownership change to DMV and max 30 days to pay the fees. Read more: checklist , things to send to DMV , more info .

  19. Taxes?

General resources:

  • The other side of the story: seller howto . The person you are buying from should have done all of this, and this is what you can demand from him. Also, see the links and actual transaction guidance inside.

  • Used car buying tips at

2007-02-20T23:59:00-08:00, originally published 2007-02-20T10:40:00-08:00