You’ve just gotten a great deal on a used car. Excellent! But before you take your new pre-owned car out for a spin, there are a few things to do first.
1. Transfer the title
The first thing you need to do is secure a clean title to the vehicle. The title of the vehicle serves as the official record of ownership for a vehicle.
Title transfer is especially important if you bought your car from a private seller. You’ll want to make sure that there are no liens listed on the back of the title document. If there are, make sure the seller can provide official statements from the banks and other lien holders that all the prior loans on the vehicle have been paid off. Transfer title requirements and procedure vary from state to state; check with your state DMV for specific information on how to transfer title to the car.
If you bought a preowned vehicle from a dealership, they will most likely take care of the required paperwork for you. Keep in mind that if the dealer lets you finance your used vehicle, they will hold onto the title until the loan is paid off.
2. Get your vehicle insured
Once you have the title in hand, more paperwork is required to file before you can hit the road in your new wheels. Most states require you to secure insurance for the vehicle before you can register it and get license plates.
If you go through a dealer, chances are they will walk you through these steps—and in some cases even file the paperwork on your behalf. If you bought your vehicle from a private seller, your first call should be to an insurance company to set up a policy and get your proof of insurance sent to you.
3. Register your car at the DMV
While car dealers in some states can file registration documents and issue plates to you on the spot, new car purchasers generally have to go in person to the state DMV office to file the documents and pay the associated fees.
The documents and information you will need vary by state, but will usually include:
A bill of sale showing the purchase price
The title, which must be signed over to you by the previous owner.
The Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN (should be listed on the bill of sale and title)
The current odometer reading
Proof of insurance
Proof that you’ve paid sales tax on the vehicle purchase
Certificates showing that the car has passed safety and emissions inspections
Make sure you check up on your state’s requirements before heading to the DMV. Some states vary in their requirements and may need additional information.
4. Get your car inspected by a mechanic
Ideally, an independent mechanic should have inspected the vehicle prior to purchasing. However, even if you gave the car a pre-sale check-up, it makes sense to bring your car to a trusted mechanic for a thorough inspection and basic preventative maintenance after the purchase.
Buyers of even low-mileage used cars should immediately replace all filters and fluids. Additionally, since they are essential to your safety, you should definitely have a mechanic check your brakes and the wear on your tires.
For older used cars—or used cars purchased in sub-optimal conditions—you’ll want to invest in a proper tune-up. Depending on the age and condition of your vehicle, your mechanic may recommend replacing all the engine belts, spark plugs, and wires, conducting a wheel alignment, and refreshing the AC unit.
5. Get auto breakdown coverage for your car
Many used vehicles also come with questionable or unknown service histories, and no one can know for sure how a car was treated by its previous owner. Even the most reliable cars and the most well-cared-for used vehicles can have mechanical breakdowns.
If the used car you’ve just purchased doesn’t come with any existing protection, consider buying a Vehicle Service Contract (VSC) from an independent provider. In a nutshell, a VSC exists to protect you financially against covered breakdowns and repairs if and when they occur to your vehicle, subject to the deductible and plan limitations.