Buying a Used Car in California

Most of us are here only for a couple of years and buying a brand new car can be pretty expensive on a tight budget, especially when you don’t have any credit score* and you have to pay it cash.
Other solutions can be considered, such as leasing or buying a used car. But how can you know whether a car is reliable or not when it has a huge mileage on the clock?
Here are some tips from my own experience.

Where to Find a Used Car?

As international staff comes and goes in Pasadena, the best place to look for among our community would be Caltech’s Market Place.
There are also dedicated websites for private parties, such as Craigslist or Kelly Blue Book, but you really need to be careful with them as there might be a lot of scams.
Another good option would be to go to a car dealership – either from a specific brand or one specialized in used cars – or in rental car agencies.

What Do I Need to Pay Attention to?

  1. Check the car’s title: if it is “salvage”, it means that the vehicle has been significantly damaged in an accident and that it has been considered as a “total loss” by the insurance company (the repair costs exceed the car’s value). They are usually cheaper than their “clean” counterparts and when it comes to used vehicles, they can lose their clean title even with minor damage, as the older the car gets, the less it is worth. However, they are also way harder to sell and you never know which mechanical issues they can hide.
  2. Check the car’s market value. You can do so through the Kelley Blue Book website, where they have separate values for cars sold by a dealer or a private party.
  3. Ask for the Carfax: it is a report with the car’s history (service done, parts changed, accidents, etc.) and it will help you evaluate whether the owner took care of their vehicle or not. In some instances, it is possible that some work done on the car does not appear in the Carfax, mainly when the owner goes in cheap auto repair shops. If s/he claims so, always ask for invoices as proof.
  4. In my home country (Belgium), a technical inspection must be performed on any licensed cars every year and if you don’t get a pass, you can’t drive with it as long as it has not been repaired and approved. This makes things quite easy when it comes to buying a used car. However, such a control does not exist in the US (the only requirement is to take a smog test every two years, which basically is a pollution test). So, even if you buy the car from a dealership, always bring it to a certified brand dealer before and have a total check-up performed. It will cost you around $200, but this is the only way to make sure that the vehicle is exempt of any mechanical failures. For example, we did not do it with the first car we bought, and we ended up with more than $2,000 of repair.
  5. Keep in mind that some brands might be quite expensive when it comes to replacing parts – which might happen sooner than you think when you buy a used one. (E.g. Japanese / Korean cars vs. European cars)

How Do I Transfer Ownership?

This is a pretty easy part. If you buy your vehicle from a dealership, they will go through all the paperwork for you. (Of course, not for free, but it really eases your mind.)
If you buy the car from a private party, you have to fill in the Certificate of Title with both the vendor’s and your signature, the price you paid for (which will influence the transfer fee you’ll have to pay) and odometer disclosure (mileage). Once this is done, the transfer is dated, so don’t leave the vehicle with the seller; take it with you along with the Title. Then, you will need to go to the DMV within 10 days to declare the ownership transfer and you will have to present your Californian driver’s license, the original, completed Title, a smog certification (either done by you or the seller; I’d suggest you have it done by the seller as a guarantee that there is no issue) and a transfer fee. And that’s it, the car is all yours 🙂
Note: The license plate stays with the car despite the change of ownership.

*A credit score is a number that basically reflects how good you are at reimbursing your credits on time. You are asked to present it to purchase a lot of expensive things (a car, a house, etc.) and even when you are renting a house. When you arrive in the US, you obviously don’t have any credit history so, as long as you haven’t built one, you will most probably have to buy everything cash.

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