How This Guide Is Organized
1. Registration
2. Insurance
3. Maintenance and Repairs
Couple in dealership
( Caiaimage / Martin Barraud / Getty Images)

You’ve found a new car, negotiated a great deal, and you are set to drive your dream wheels for the next five or more years. Well, it’s not quite that simple. There are a couple more things that you need to do before it is legal to hit the road. Fortunately, they’re pretty easy, and there’s lots of information available to help you through the processes.


You can’t legally drive on public roads until your car is properly registered, but if you buy a new or used car from a dealer, they will generally help you with the paperwork so that you have at least a temporary registration before you leave the dealership. Of course, the service isn’t free. They’ll usually charge you a documentation fee, or doc fee, for the time that they spend on the paperwork.

In some states you can complete the entire process and get license plates at the dealer. In others, they will apply for registration, and you will get your plates in the mail some weeks later. Still, others will require you to take a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to finalize the registration.

If you buy the car from a private party, you will almost certainly need to go to DMV to finalize the title transfer and register the car. You’ll also want to make sure that the seller does their part in releasing their claim to title, so that you can prove that you are not responsible for any tickets or fines acquired before you owned the car.

When you go to the DMV, be prepared to pay up to several hundred dollars for registration, depending on the state. You’ll want to have the title or the loan documents if you financed the car and the lender is holding the title. You’ll also need to show proof of insurance, a completed emissions test, and/or a vehicle inspection report in most states.

Many DMVs will require you to have multiple forms of ID, with at least one being a government-issued photo ID. You should also take a current proof of address, such as a utility bill. As a bonus for your trouble, however, is many DMVs will now register you to vote when you’re in the office for a major transaction.

You should always keep your registration information in the car unless you are in a high-crime area where the theft of your registration could help an identity thief – then you should put it in the car whenever you are driving. Never keep your vehicle title in the car.


If you’re trading a car in, most insurers will cover the new car for a few days until you can give them all the information about the new car. It’s a better idea, however, to get your new car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) ahead of time and give it to your insurer so you are assured that you have appropriate coverage the moment you leave the dealership.

If it is your first car, finding an insurer before you buy is critical, as most dealers won’t let you drive away without showing proof of insurance. It’s a good practice to talk to your insurer ahead of time anyway, as it might save you from sticker shock on the insurance price of your new ride.

There are several components to an auto insurance policy, and the costs for each vary by the type of car you buy, its value, your age, your credit score, your driving record, the length of your commute, how high the deductible, and the area that you live in.

Buying insurance to cover your car and its contents in case of an accident or theft is optional if you own the car outright, but is required if you have a loan on the car. State laws mandate that you buy liability insurance to protect other drivers and their property from your actions.

Check out our Car Insurance Center for more information.

Maintenance and Repairs

Considering the costs of maintenance and repairs isn’t on the radar of most car buyers, but it should be. Different cars have different repair costs, and if you buy a used car that’s out of warranty the costs of repairs can add a degree of uncertainty to your automotive budget.

Even if you buy a brand new car, you’ll need to follow a program of scheduled maintenance. While it might be attractive to skip some items to save money, it can cost you in the long run when components fail because they haven’t received basic TLC.

With the complexity of modern cars, there are often recalls and campaigns to ensure that there’s not an issue that jeopardizes your safety. Before you buy, and occasionally thereafter, you’ll want to enter your VIN at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s to find any open recalls on your car.