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Buying a car for cross country trip

Ok -
My best friend and I have decided to take a cross country trip to round out our 20s. The problem is - we don’t have a car!
Another thing to consider: we’re native New Yorkers which means we’re not the most experienced drivers. She’s been driving regularly for some years now - I am a pretty inexperienced (read: nervous) driver. Another reason I want to take this trip! Face my fears and such.

SO the question is… is buying a used car and trying to sell it in California a doable thing? If so - what kind of car should we try to get? We’re willing to take a bit of a loss of course on the car - but not too much.

Can’t wait to hear from the community! Even though I’ve never owned a car, I have always loved listening to car tawk - and I"m so sad to not have gotten to ask Click and Clack themselves!

Thanks -
Nicki and Ayana

Buy a rusty ny car and sell it in Cali? Usually the other way around. And fly home? Or walk? Just rent a car.

Is this a one way trip? If so, I would take a bus. If you buy a car in NY and try to sell it in CAL, you are going to take a big loss and if you are staying in Cal, you will need a car. If this is a round trip, rent a car, in the long run this will be the least expensive and the least hassle.

I agree with @keith. I would rent and take what you want. I wouldn’t deal with the hassle. You will be able to optimize the car for a trip and not worry about city driving. Rent a 4 cylinder Camry. They are easy to rent, comfy, roomy, easy to drive and quite economical.

A few more details about your expectations for the trip would help. You can drive cross country in a few days, or take weeks or months if you plan lots of side trips. Do you want to sleep in the car some nights, are you taking camping equipment?

Buying a used car in the NY Metro area and then selling it in a few weeks in CA doesn’t seem practical. You buy the car, pay a good amount for sales tax, title, and registration fees. Get it inspected and insured, more cost.

Then you start out on your adventure. The title will be sent in the mail to somewhere in NY and usually you don’t get it for 3-5 weeks after registering the car. So, you have to have someone going into the mail in NY who can mail you the title somewhere in CA. Without the title you can’t sell the car.

If you really think this through, renting a car looks like the best way to go. You can rent a car in NY and drop it off in CA, no problem.

I’d be VERY cautious about buying any used vehicle in New York, especially NYC. All those cars that were damaged by Sandy recently might have made their way onto dealership lots or an unscrupulous owner is trying to sell his flooded out junker and is looking for a patsy to buy it.

You should look at the cost of both. As Uncle T said, there are a lot of costs associated with buying a car besides the purchase price. You also need to make sure that the car will pass inspection and a smog test in Cali before you buy it. You can rent a car for a couple grand and drop it at the end of your trip. You might spend a couple grand in taxes, tags, and other fees to register the car in NY. You can go to the NY DoT to see what it would cost to buy, license, and register a car in the state. Then shop for rental cars and see if the extra cost for the rental is little enough that it trumps the hassle of buying and selling a car. I’d bet that it does.

Here is a thought–use the money you would spend on a car and go by Amtrak. Plan your trip so that you get on and off at interesting locations. If you go the northern route, get off at Whitefish, Montana, rent a car and explore Glacier National Park. If you go the southern route, get off at Flagstaff, Arizona and make a trip to the Grand Canyon. When you have done the sight-seeing, turn the rental car in and take the train to the next location. My wife and I have taken trips like this and it is very enjoyable.

Talk to car transport companies and see if someone needs their car driven from NY to CA.

I think your idea to take a road trip is a great idea! There’s one problem with your plan. Selling an out of state car in California involves considerable expense, because California taxes these kinds of transactions to the hilt. Why? Partly it is due to smog laws. A car purchased in Calif has all the Calif required smog equipment. One purchased out of state doesn’t. Also, so that people who live in Calif don’t have the incentive to drive to Nevada to buy a car to save on the sales tax. When you re-register in Calif, you have to pay the Calif sales tax as if you purchased the car new. So nothing is saved, plus you had to pay the Nevada fees too.

I think you’ll be money ahead – way ahead – to simply rent a car. Even if you rent a car for a month or two months. Check with the rental companies. I’ve rented a car for a week with unlimited mileage for $200. And there’s no car insurance costs. You’d have to secure auto insurance if you buy. And I’ll bet you can even get a better deal than $200/week on renting if you call around. At least compare the rental vs the purchase expense to you, pencil it out before deciding.

Another idea is to advertise your scheme on Craigslist, and see if anybody needs their car transported from the east coast to Calif. You might can use their car for free if the timing works out.

And definitely look into this problem of selling an out of state car in Calif. That in itself might be a deal breaker. You might do better – if you do decide to buy – to sell the car in Nevada instead.

My vote is the same as some others; rent a car. Not being mechanically inclined and considering that most used car deals are a potential minefield could leave you and your friend in a predicament if that used car suffers a major problem out in the middle of nowhere.
Taking a financial hit on reselling a used car would take a back seat to wondering if that used car would get me there with no problems.

I would also recommend renting a car for this cross country trip. IF you can find someone needing their car moved to the west coast who is willing to fit YOUR schedule, that would be better, but only if the car is roadworthy for the trip.

Someone above stated that renting would not require insurance. In fact it does. My own insurance company covers me on those rare occasions that I need to rent a car, but if you don’t own an insured car, you have no coverage. You will then be at the mercy of the rental car company which charges very high daily rates. It also costs extra with some companies for an additional driver to be covered. Be sure to ask if BOTH of you are covered. If you are under 25, some companies won’t rent to you. (How close are you to rounding out your 20s?)

There will be an extra charge for dropping a car at your destination, unless they just happen to need more NY cars in CA for some reason. I know a guy who used to travel with a crew in a van for one of the major rental companies. They were the ones who took relocated cars to other locations where they were needed.

Shop around for the best deal. You can do it online.

In your specific case, I’ll agree with others on renting a vehicle, for all the good reasons already offered. Of the other options mentioned, I’d recommend against the idea of transporting a car for someone else. That works if you are just trying to get there - these arrangements are explicitly for going directly from point A to point B without stopping to sightsee, dawdle, and smell the roses, all of which you are hopefully planning to do. I’ve done the transporter thing a few times - it was useful at the time, but not for exploring.

Back to renting: If you can possibly manage the cost, you might consider renting a very small motor home, hardly bigger than a pickup truck, so that you can wander off the beaten track and camp in established campgrounds in National Parks and other areas now and then. There are probably several companies which offer these, do a google search for RV rentals. You could perhaps rent a small car for the eastern states, then pick up the mini RV once you reach the wide open spaces.

Take as much time as you possibly can for this great adventure. Once you cross the Mississippi, the landscape and open space changes everything. Tons and tons of great natural places, but I find that exploring the agricultural heartland is a rewarding experience too, it’s so much different than the urbanized and compact eastern states.

Because of mountainous terrain where snow lingers into summer, keep in mind that higher elevation highways are subject to travel restrictions much later into the spring than you might imagine.

My top recommendations for parks, in no particular order, include Yellowstone (WY), Glacier (MT), Arches (UT), Grand Canyon (AZ), White Sands (NM), Rocky MT (CO), Sequoia (CA), Yosemite (CA), and the state parks in redwood country in northern CA. In general, southern Utah and the coast from northern California to Washington are especially beautiful. But that only scratches the surface of great places in the American west. Take time to explore small towns in Kansas and Nebraska, drive out into serious farm country, take two lane roads, all of which will result in great adventures. Enjoy!

And please…send reports from the road!


Renting makes the most sense. Years ago there were "drive-away"
arrangements where you would drive an Eastern car to L.A. or SanFrancisco and get the use of the car for 3 free weeks. Those days are over. You might find a California car owner in NY who wants his car driven back to California.Those are usually high end cars, so a comforrtable trip. Many NewYorkers doing a project on the West Coast want their car out there, but they fly down. Like many seniors gong to Florida for the winter months want someone to drive their car there.

A couple of drivers in the “Cannonball” Coast to Coast run did just that. But all in all, driving a rental will be the most fun for you.


Years ago there were "drive-away" arrangements where you would drive an Eastern car to L.A. or SanFrancisco and get the use of the car for 3 free weeks. Those days are over.

I would have thought the same, but just for laughs today I googled “Auto Driveaway”, the company I used a couple times for long trips. That company, and apparently others, still exist. Chances are the internet is a boon for their visibility. What I recall is that I was prohibited from venturing more than a few miles off a direct route (no good way to enforce that) and limited to number of days. I pushed the limits in a few ways, but I just needed to get where I was going, not explore. (southern OH to central CA in a black Caddy Seville with a lot of my stuff, and then from Houston to Minnesota in an Oldsmobile diesel). Just for the sake of transportation, I doubt these deals pencil out well compared to flying when you consider fuel costs and accommodations. And if you can’t dawdle and wander around, what’s the benefit? Only makes sense if you need to move a car full of stuff (and not say anything about that). I don’t think “driveaway” would suit the OP’s purposes, except maybe for a quick return trip after their great adventure, but even then, it’s doubtful it’s worth it when you consider the value of one’s time.

Yep, agree with everyone else. NY is the worst place to buy and California is the worst place to sell if you even could with the California emissions regulations. Renting makes much more sense but check out if they will rent to someone under 21 and also the insurance aspect. Usually your own insurance covers in a rental, but if you don’t have a car and thus no insurance, you need to make sure you are covered for liability and collision. If you wreck a rental, they charge you not only for the car but for the lost use while it is being repaired or replaced and not at discount rates. So make sure you have full coverage no matter how you get it.

Yes, rent. You have obviously never bought and sold a used car. It can be a pain for anyone, but especially those who have never done it.

As far as driving, take it easy at first. If you can drive in NYC, you can drive on the open highway, once you see how things work. Once you get away from the east, things aren’t so hectic until you get to California. Drive only in the daytime until/unless you get comfortable with it.

Don’t take anything even vaguely illegal. As I have written, cops are making illegal stops, and intimidative searches even if you obey all traffic laws. Don’t do it; just don’t do it.

It will get easier as you go. It will still be a long trip. But at your age it can be a real adventure. In 1964, I drove a 1953 Chevrolet 2050 miles from our home to Ft. Lewis, and it was by far the most unforgettable long trip I ever took, being the first one. Fifty hours, before the Interstate was done all the way. Use Mapquest or other map service to plan your trip.

If you go in the winter, it can get hairy if you encounter a major snow storm, especially in the Western mountains. Take cold weather gear so you can survive in a car stuck in the snow for several days, and something to eat in an emergency, like peanut butter. Light jackets or coats doesn’t do it. When we go into the Snow Zone in the winter, I toss my -20 degree sleeping bags in the back. In the summer take some gallons of water.

In good weather, there are plenty of eating places, maybe not gourmet food, but you can buy food across the country on major highways. Until you get used to it, fill up at half tank, and hit the restrooms. With experience, you can run lower, but don’t risk it during the learning process. Check the oil every day, even if it is a rented car.

Well said @irlandes, especially regarding supplies and equipment to have on board.

Doesn’t New York subscribe to the same standards as California in terms of emissions? I know a handful of states have the stricter emissions regulations besides Cali.

" Talk to car transport companies and see if someone needs their car driven from NY to CA."

Great idea, except, we shouldn’t mention to the company how inexperienced OP is driving. The trip is a learning experience with a car. Mums the word !