How To Buy a Car in California

in Buying By State
California sign in the desert

Source: Pixabay

California offers some of the best natural landscapes and innovative companies in the world, so it probably comes as no surprise that the state is also one of the best places in the U.S. to buy a car. With three of the top 10 most populated cities in the country there are thousands of options for people who are wondering how to buy a car in California.

With a comfortable year round seasonal climate it’s also a great spot to find unique, custom, or classic cars that are no longer on the market. As you might expect, since California has one of some of the highest living expenses in the world, those expenses can often be found with your next vehicle as well.

The biggest cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area and the surrounding suburbs are great places to start your search. If you’ve narrowed down your search and are looking into the next in your journey keep reading below to see what the state may require that’s different from other parts of the country.

California is one the many states that requires consumers to have auto insurance before they’re able to purchase a vehicle. Assuming you have a driver’s license, insurance (or can get insurance), and your vehicle and payment, this focuses on the specifics of California’s associated paperwork and materials for each method of purchase.

How to Buy a Car in California - Dealer (New)

All in all, buying a car in California is a very similar process that you’ll see in different states. The main differences can be found in the tax and fees associated with the process. California has been aggressive in its effort to reduce the carbon footprint from vehicles, and lots of the fees associated with buying from a dealer are related to going green.

There are a lot of similarities with buying from a dealer regardless if it’s new or used, and the following fees will apply in both situations. The California Civil Code mandates that dealerships show the fees they are charging when you purchase, and below are some basic fees you can expect to pay when getting a car from a dealer:

Advertising fees: These are rolled into the vehicle cost and can vary significantly based on the model and city or county you’re buying from. It’s illegal for dealerships to hide these fees and you can often negotiate these down or have them eliminated entirely.

Sales tax: A 7.5% sales tax is the minimum across the state and can increase by your specific city or county of residency which you can check here.

Title fee: This is also known as a “pink slip fee” and is $21 for new vehicles.

California Registration fee: This goes hand in hand with the title fee for an additional $58, and you can’t really get one without the other.

Potential additional fees: These will depend on the dealership you’re buying from and the zip code of where you live, but some additional fees are for general documentation filing $80 (plus a bit extra per filing transaction), California Highway Patrol fee of $25, zero emissions parking sticker for $17, smog transfer fee of $8, air quality management fee for an extra $6, and fingerprint IDs, reflector license plate stickers, and crime deterrence fee all for an additional $1.


The CoPilot car shopping app is the smartest way to buy a car. Get a curated list of the best cars for sale in your area, as well as notifications if a similar vehicle is listed nearby at a lower price. CoPilot is the smartest way to shop for used cars. 

How to Buy a Car in California - Dealer (Used)

The general process for buying a used car from a dealership is the same with a few extra things to take into consideration. California dealerships are allowed to sell cars “as is”, which means they do not need to make any repairs before selling or provide an additional warranty.

It’s recommended to have a private mechanic run a diagnostic test to check the overall quality of the vehicle, which is provided for about $60. You can check the California State Automobile Associated for a list of approved mechanics. You can check your zip code for a private inspection here.

You can assume to pay all of the fees that were listed above for a used car purchase with some slight changes and a few additional fees that are more likely to be associated with older models. Instead of paying the title or pink slip fee, used cars have a slight discount for the “transfer fee” which is only $16 instead of new cars at $21.

If you’re buying a used car that is under $40,000 California allows consumers to purchase a two day cancellation policy on most vehicles if returned with no more than 250 miles. Most taxes and fees will be refunded, but this can depend on your location and the specific dealership.


When it comes to hauling a lot of people and cargo, the minivan is hard to beat. We’ve factored in reliability, affordability, and functionality to create this curated list of the 8 best used minivans on the market today.

How to Buy a Car in California - Private Seller

The great thing about buying from a private seller is that you can typically save some money on the actual purchase itself, but usually have to invest some more time on test drives, paperwork, and inspections.

In the state of California if you buy from a private seller, usually the extra legwork falls on the buyer. You can assume the fees mentioned above also transfer to private sellers, but there is no guarantee you can work out a two-day refund like you can with dealers.

When purchasing from a private seller, you’ll need to do your due diligence in research just like buying a car from the dealer. You’ll need to verify the VIN for vehicle history (and the owner history), get a Certificate of ownership, and register the vehicle with the DMV in person.

You typically have 10 days to do this before they’ll add on late fees. It’s also important to fill out the official odometer paperwork if the vehicle is over 10 years old to help speed up the process at the DMV. 

Just like buying through a dealer, each vehicle must pass the state’s smog requirements but the seller isn’t required to provide these like the dealer usually does. This can run you a few hundred dollars if the seller doesn’t have them up to date but is a requirement when purchasing a privately owned used car.


Gap insurance can prevent you from making payments on an already-totalled car, but is gap insurance worth it? We break down what gap insurance is, if it’s worth it, and more - simply and with plenty of examples. 

Get a Curated List of the Best Used Cars Near You

Paperwork and working with the DMV definitely isn’t the most exciting part about buying a car but if you’ve made it this far you’re just a few short steps away from riding off in your dream car. Overall California has great resources for finding your next car and just requires a few manageable additional steps to get there.

When you’re ready to buy, the CoPilot car shopping app is the easiest way to get new wheels. Tell us what you’re looking for and we’ll search the inventories of every dealership in your area to make you a personalized list of the best car listings in your area.

Only looking for newer models? CoPilot Compare is the search engine for nearly-new cars. Only see cars five years or newer with low mileage — CoPilot Compare is the best way to find off-lease, early trade-in, and CPO cars.

The best part? CoPilot is built using the same technology that dealerships use to buy and sell their inventories, so we have more info on each vehicle than competitors. CoPilot doesn’t work with dealerships, so there are no sponsored posts or other shady practices — just the most info on the best cars. Check out our About Us page to see how CoPilot works.