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We’ve all purchased used cars before, right? The process seems simple, usually involving something along the lines of a test drive, an inspection, and an exchange of money for a title. The hardest part, sometimes, is getting the car home. We’re going to try and demystify that.

The logistics of transporting a car while it changes hands is an annoying but essential step once the paperwork’s signed. You’ve got your title, your car, you’re good to go! Right? Oh wait, where’s the license plate? Yeah, herein lies the problem.

If you’re purchasing a car from a dealer, legal stuff is usually taken care of – the office should have a temporary plate or some other paperwork that lets you get on your way.

But if you’re buying from a private seller, things can be a bit more tricky. Private seller deals don’t always happen during the business hours of the local DMV or your car insurance company. If you’ve driven a long way to look at a vehicle, it may not be practical to make two trips to return with new plates.  So how the heck can you get your new baby back home? Let’s run through some options.

Before you go anywhere, make sure that new car has valid insurance, for starters. Many policies, including possibly one you might already have, offer a few-days grace period that extends coverage to new-to-you vehicle purchases. Some insurance companies do not and insist on vehicles being formally added to the policy. Either way, please verify what applies to you. Driving without insurance is illegal in all 50 states! But even if you’re getting your car towed, it’s a good idea to make sure it’s covered as soon as you take ownership. Bad things can still happen even if a car’s not being moved under its own power.

Once you’re insured, there are a few ways to proceed.

Drive Home With the Seller’s License Plates

If the used car you’re buying is on valid plates when you make the deal, just running with those is the easiest way to get a vehicle home. Yet, not all private sellers are comfortable with their buyers (often complete strangers) using their license plates. For starters, the seller may have plans to transfer those plates to a new vehicle. Also, unfortunately, not everyone is honest. Case in point, I’ve let a buyer use my old plates “just to get home.” That buyer did not get new plates right away and racked up several parking tickets while my tags were still on the car. Imagine how (un)happy I was to check my mail and see tickets for a car I no longer owned! I had to suck it up, pay the tickets, and then mosey on to the BMV. I got my former plates canceled, lest they be used again, say, in a bank robbery.

Drive Home Without License Plates

The legality of this varies from place to place – some states will allow a vehicle to be transported home over the road without a license plate, so long as the driver has some sort of paperwork proving they’re the owner of the vehicle. This can include a bill of sale, a title, or registration. It’s common practice in some southern states, for example, where a simple “tag applied for” sign in the back window is perfectly fine. However, for other places, like say, Ohio, this is not legal. Either way, check with your BMV or DMV before you find out one way or the other.

Typically, your state or province’s DMV or BMV website should have answers and how-tos on how to get your new baby home after a private sale. If not, this website may help point you in the right direction.

Drive Home With Valid License Plates From Another Vehicle

Surprisingly, this isn’t always illegal. In my state of Ohio, it’s perfectly legal to drive a vehicle on a plate from a different vehicle, provided the previous vehicle is in your name, and the registration is valid. Obviously, driving around on a plate registered to a different car isn’t meant to be permanent. In Ohio, plates do not stay with a given vehicle, they can be transferred from vehicle to vehicle, for the cost of about five dollars, provided the plates are in your name.

After driving your new car home, you should head to your local Bureau or Department of Motor Vehicles at your earliest convenience to officially transfer over the plates.

Drive Home With a Temporary Tag or Plate

Ohio temporary tag
Image: Ohio BMV

In many states, your BMV or DMV can issue a temporary paper plate to use until you receive real license plates. In the past, this may have required a trip to a state vehicle registration office, which was a hassle if the sale happened outside of business hours. When I bought my Tiburon, this was the case. I didn’t get the keys to it until nearly 8:00 pm that evening, and I needed to put some sort of identification on the vehicle until I could go to the Ohio BMV the next morning and transfer everything over.

One of the few positive things about the COVID pandemic, though, is the streamlining and online migration of some of these services. Here in Ohio, temporary tags can now be paid for online and printed at home. Now, it only takes a few minutes, a working printer, and a fee of about $20 to get a 30-day temporary tag.

Check your state’s DMV website, they may have new options that can give you the needed identification, without having to be beholden to their normal business hours!

Tow Your Car Home

How To Move Your New Used Car Before It’s Road Legal
Image: Kevin Williams

This can be the most expensive and least satisfying way to get a car home. After all, who wants to trailer home their new baby, especially if it’s a joy to drive? But sometimes, it’s easier to just send the car home on the back of a truck rather than bother with what is legal or what is not, especially if you’ve got to travel through different municipalities or states.

Bite the Bullet and Make Two Trips

Well, if none of these are legal, safe solutions, you might have to make two trips. Is it fun? Not really, but I think we’d all rather err on the side of safety, rather than driving illegally and putting your new baby (and possibly your driving record) at risk.

There’s a lot of ways to get a car home. Whatever you choose, make sure you’re doing things safely, and legally!

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