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Long-Distance Car Buying

Here’s a question for car shoppers: What if you find your perfect car and it happens to be halfway across the country? Sounds like an insurmountable hassle, right? You’ll have to view lots of photos online, trust someone on the other end to present the facts accurately, deal with lots of paperwork and finally, getting your new car home.

Whew! Seems easier to just buy the good-enough car close-by, doesn’t it? Turns out that it isn’t that big a deal to buy a car out of state and bring it home.

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But how do you make sure the car you want has the exact features and options you’re looking for? Thankfully, AutoTrader’s "Find Cars For Sale" has different filters to help you find just the right car. This is especially important when buying long distance or out of state because you don’t have the luxury of seeing the car in-person before you make your purchase.

When shopping for new cars on, one of the best features is the ability of the dealer to include a link to the actual window sticker, so you can see exactly which options are included and what the price breakdown is – again, very helpful when you can’t see the car in person before buying.

This is critical when comparing online prices because you want to be sure that any cars you are comparing are identically equipped, or if they aren’t you need to be able to see the exact differences and the price of those options so you can compare prices accurately.

View the Window Sticker

The window sticker is also helpful because the information listed in the ad by the dealer varies in quality and quantity. Some dealers may not fully describe all the features, leaving you to guess which option packages are installed. Others may list a vehicle as white when the photos show a black car. Mistakes happen, especially when you think about the millions of listings on the site, so it is important that there is access to a document providing accurate information on the vehicle.

Color is also interesting because carmakers have different names for their colors, rather than relying on the simple Crayola 8-pack of color names. So the Sapphire Crystal Blue and True Blue Metallic are both blue hues available on the 2012 Town and Country, but if the listing only shows "blue" you won’t know exactly which blue it is without referring to the window sticker.

Options can cause unexpected confusion too. A dealer might neglect to mention that a vehicle has a feature because it is standard equipment.

Ideally you would want to search for a vehicle using filters to show only those known to be equipped exactly as you want, it is important to do some searches without all of the filters applied. Then you might spot a car with an ambiguous color listed in another category, or one that is listed with all the options you want but one. It is worth a look at the window sticker for a car like this because it is possible that option is on the car, but was overlooked when the dealer entered the data for it.

Alternatively, such searches with one option missing from the filter list could turn up a vehicle with an attractive price that might make you consider living without, say, high-intensity discharge headlights if you spot a bargain on a car that has every other option you are looking for with an irresistible price tag.

Locked on target

After much searching you’ve found your perfect car, but it turns out to be far away. Fear not, shoppers buy out-of-state cars every day. Be aware that the distances listed on from your ZIP code to the car listed is an as-the-crow-flies approximation, which can vary significantly depending on the need to skirt around things like mountains or lakes. So if you are in Florida looking at a pretty reasonable distance to a car in Texas, understand that you will need to drive around the Gulf of Mexico!

Dealers that use the AutoTrader AutoBiography can provide you an abundance of detailed information about your car, along with photographs, so that you can see details up close. Some post video walkarounds of cars too, helping you get the feeling that you are inspecting the car in person.

It is simplified when buying a new car because the car is expected to be in new condition. Used cars can get a bit trickier so it is important to have the seller go over the car’s condition in thorough detail to avoid any disputes when you finally see the car in person.

Another thing that is simplified is ensuring that the target car is acceptable to the emissions regulators in your home state. Most new cars these days have 50-state certification, but if not, and you live in California or one of the other states that follow its pollution laws, then you need to be sure that the model you are buying is outfitted for California’s emissions requirements. A tag under the hood will confirm compliance with California standards, so you can ask to see a photo of that before buying the car.

California publishes this brochure on purchasing cars from out of state.

If you are buying a used car, you will also want to see some proof that the car’s emissions equipment has been tested and works properly.

California requires an emissions test of both new and used car at the time of registration. In other states like New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Georgia, cars that are bought new are not required to be tested for emissions under the assumption that new cars are delivered in working condition. Some newer used cars are also exempt, the age varies by state, so check your state’s requirements here:


When you are ready to buy the car, the dealer can use an e-document service to send you the purchase agreement. This uses a third-party web site to authenticate the documents and make them legally binding, just as if you signed the purchase agreement in their office.

Signing the document in advance of going to get the car protects you from the unhappiness of having the car sold before you arrive at the dealer to pick it up.

You pay sales tax on your new pride and joy when you register it with your home state, rather than when you buy it. That means that you won’t be financing the sales tax, so be prepared to pay that. If you are buying the car from a dealer, they can usually install temporary tags for you to use until you register the car at home.

Also, remember to notify your insurance agent about the new car to get the policy transferred from the old one.

Then it comes down to actually retrieving your purchase. If it isn’t too far, you could consider driving your trade-in there and driving your new car back. If you don’t have a trade-in, you could have someone drive you. But that really only works with the tiny interstate distances in the Northeast.

Elsewhere, you are probably going to either want to cash in some frequent flier miles or find an airfare bargain so you only have to drive one way. You might need a hotel too, depending on the distance of your drive home.

If you don’t have the time or interest in a long drive in your new car, the dealer can ship it to you for about $800 to $1,000, about the same as new car shipping costs to the dealer. Some dealers, especially those with thorough ads on, do these deals frequently and can walk you through the process pretty painlessly.

In the end, it might be worth it if you have your heart set on a very specific car with a very specific list of features and options.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from its originial content

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