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A Temporary License Plate Would Be Nice in Massachusetts

Recently, California finally began to issue temporary license plates to let you drive your newly purchased car while your permanent registration is processed. Previously a simple license plate with the dealer name on it was adequate for the first two months, and many people abused this system by simply never registering their cars at all. Most states have some provision for temporary registration while you jump through the hoops of registering your new car. But not Massachusetts.

The Bay State doesn’t do temporary license plates. At all. If you buy a car from a dealer, they will often handle the transfer for you during delivery, meaning that you drive off in your new car as legally as you drove your old car in. What if you’re not trading in a car? Dealers can still obtain new plates for you, but this can delay delivery for a day or two, as the dealer’s runner has to go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) and stand in line. (Yes, by standing in line for the entire day or two.) The state doesn’t make it easy, but a good dealer will take care of you.

What if you’re buying a car in a private sale rather than a dealer? That’s where things really get tricky. If it’s still registered to the previous owner, you could drive it home on their plates, then get the plates back to them later. This requires an extremely trusting seller, and most people will understandably not agree to this. I’ve only managed to do this once when I bought my first Honda Civic wagon. The seller was a friend of a friend, and by a strange coincidence, we had the same birthday — not just the same date, but the same year, as well. This created an instant bond of some kind, and she was comfortable loaning me her plates to drive home.

Other options include buying the car, doing the paperwork, going to the RMV to register the car, then coming back with a valid registration and license plate to pick it up. This can be a time-consuming process, not to mention inconvenient to make two separate trips for the same car, especially if you’re buying it from some distance away. Trailering it could be an option, but most people aren’t set up with a truck and a trailer capable of transporting a car. You could call roadside assistance to bring it home on the back of a flatbed or tow truck, but most such services won’t tow an unregistered vehicle. That brings you back to the problem of having to register the car before you can get it home, in which case you might as well just drive it.

See how difficult it is to legally acquire a new vehicle without a temporary license plate? Fortunately, Massachusetts does provide a way out of this dilemma — at least, for some people. We have what is called the Seven Day Transfer Law. This gives the buyer a grace period of seven days to register their new car after buying it, during which time they can drive it as normal. Seven days is still quite a time crunch compared to the two months that California gives you. And as always, there is a catch — several of them, actually.

First, you have to be at least 18 years old for some reason. The new vehicle must be the same type and have the same number of wheels as the old one. If you sell your Mazda MX-5 Miata and buy a Ford F-350 dually, you’re out of luck. You must have lost possession of your previous vehicle. This is easy with a trade-in, but if you’re keeping your old car, or intend to sell it privately but haven’t yet, you don’t get to take advantage of the grace period.

The most asinine part of this law is that you are not only allowed, but required to attach the license plates from your old car to your new one before transferring your registration to drive it legally during the grace period. Putting plates from one car onto another car is typically a big no-no. Even in Massachusetts, it’s generally illegal to swap plates like this, yet this law requires you to do exactly that. It’s the only way you can drive a newly acquired car while you’re still in the process of registering it. At least under California’s previous law, the existence of a dealer plate was an indication to law enforcement that the car was a registration work in progress. Massachusetts law actively disguises such cars from the watchful eyes of the police, making you blend in with everyone else so they don’t notice you.

Of course, you are required to carry all documentation of the purchase in the car with you until you get your new registration. That’s particularly important because any officer who randomly runs your plate will quickly discover it’s not on the car it’s supposed to be and stop you. Even I got stopped once in my Volkswagen Jetta Ute because the plate came back to a Jetta — but all the officer saw from behind me was a pickup truck, and my registration was current and valid. (She let me go after I explained the ute kit.) So you’d better have your previous registration and sale documents for the new car to prove that it’s yours, and you’d better be within the seven-day limit.

Why Massachusetts doesn’t issue temporary plates, like most states, is beyond me. While California has finally entered the 21st century, Massachusetts remains in the dark ages, with its crazy laws requiring you to do something that’s usually illegal to drive your new car legally. And since many people don’t qualify for the Seven Day Transfer Law’s strict requirements, they often end up illegally swapping plates from another car anyway just to get their new car home.

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