Tourist buying a car in Chicago/Detroit

Hi Everyone,

I’m from the UK, and am going to be arriving in Chicago March 10 with 2 friends planning to buy a car and embark on a 3 month road trip (covering approx 5000 miles).

We have set 6 days aside to find a car, register it and get insurance in Chicago. At the moment the plan is to register it to our hostel.

I guess what I wanted to ask was, what’s the chances of making this work in Illinois? If we’re not successful in Chicago we’re going to keep trying until we reach Canada. If not it will have to be the Greyhound.

I think iv’e heard most of the pitfalls and reasons not to do it so constructive advice to make the whole thing work would be much appreciated!



ps…we like the look of the Chrysler Sebring convertible ($2000 budget) and will be selling it in TX in June. Is this a good/bad car choice?

Chrysler Sebring is a very poor quality car, but I do agree that it looks great. It is one of the running jokes on the American version of “The Office” that the foolish boss character Michael is in love with his Sebring.

Your best bet is going to be a long-term rental. Try an outfit like “Rent-A-Wreck”.

If you insist on buying, check with the Illinois state motor vehicle association for legal/licensing/registration/inspection/insurance regulations. My guess is this is not how you want to spend your vacation. Dealing with this is a nightmare typically.

Rather than buy a car, in your case I would suggest leasing or renting a car. I suspect it will turn out far easier and less expensive. You will not need to register the car so you will avoid that part of the project.

Use Google and get the names and contact information for a few Chicago dealers and/or rental agencies. Ask them about what you want. I suspect they can help you out in a manor that will be beneficial to both you and the dealer.

You need to contact the state of Illinois DMV. In most US states you have to register the car and have it pass an inspection. Will Illinois allow you to register the car with a driver’s license and address in another country? If no, then you have to prove to be a resident and get an Illinois driver’s license. Since 9/11 it is very hard to prove residency. It requires multiple documents to prove residency and I don’t think you could do it in 6 days.

At this point the issue isn’t what car to buy, but whether you can buy anything and get it titled, licensed, registered, and inspected. The fee’s for all of this, plus sales tax ($150.00), and proof of insurance ($1,000 for insurance) is going to be around $1,300.

There is a company called “Rent-a-wreak” that offers lower cost longer term car rentals because they rent out older “used” cars. You should check out this option. Another possible is to see if you can buy the car and register it in Canada. Perhaps they have more flexible policies regarding non-resident car ownership.

Thanks for your replies.

I have looked into the rental option, including “Rent-a-wreck”, taking into consideration Liability insurance and the drop off in Texas it will be in excess of $4000, which is over our budget.

Uncle Turbo- would sales tax apply to buying a car privately, say on Craigslist? Also $1000, for 3 months seems high, after doing getting some quotes and readings some forums I was expecting to pay no more than $500. Please correct me if i’m missing something.

Mleich- thanks for the Office reference, this has been enough to dissuade me from the Sebring! Any opinions on the Pontiac Sunfire? I will admit we are hoping for a soft top for the summer months down south.

We are expecting the process to take a little while which is why we have a week planned in Chicago to get the whole thing sorted! Haven’t been able to find out about whether the Illinois DMV will let us register to our home address (this would be perfect if possible).

Sales tax- yes you have to pay sales tax. You do it when you title and register the car. The seller will note the selling price on the back of the old title. You take the old title and other documents including proof of insurance with you to the DMV office to get a new title and register the car, that is when you have to pay the sales tax. It is likely around 7% in Illinois. In many states (like PA where I live) you pay a mechanic to inspect the car (est. $25). The new title is going to be $5 to 20. The one year registration and plate for the car is going to cost est. $30 to 40. All this stuff ads up, so you’ll drop $150 to 250 at DMV and getting the car inspected. Your Illinois driver’s license is going to be about $40 if you can get one. All states have DMV websites. You can get specifics either online, or at least get the number and have the pleasure of a phone converstation with a DMV agent. Often info given on the phone turns out to be different than what you get when you go to the DMV office. Dealing with DMV in most US states can be one of the great frustrations of life in the US.

Insurance- Car insurance rates vary greatly in the US. It also depends on the age and driving record. If your two friends are going to share the driving the insurer might want to see all of your previous driving records. If you can get insurance for $500 you are doing OK.

If your whole budget is $2,000 for the car, registration, and insurance I think you are looking at a $750 to 1,000 car. For that money you can figure to spend some bucks for repairs. I don’t think your $2,000 is reasonable. If the motor or transmission fails you are going to get zippo for the car and won’t have the money to repair it.

The $4,000 for the “Rent-A-Wreck” looks pretty good to me. At least you can budget for the expense and shouldn’t have a nasty budget busting surprise to deal with. Another advantage to renting is you can drive in the US on your current driver’s license in your home country. As long as you meet the rental agency requirements. Check with the US Embassy in your home country for appropriate documents you’ll need to drive legally in the US.

It sounds like a great adventure, but your numbers aren’t practical. Your great adventure could just be a major nightmare.

We have accounted for most of these costs you mentioned, the $2000 budget was solely for the car, (the sales tax I wasn’t aware of). And whilst it would be nice to get something back for the car, we’re not banking on it as it could easily go tits up. In that case we jump on the Greyhound.

Its is fine for us to drive in the states with a UK license however is easier with a International Drivers Permit, which we will be purchasing before coming over.

Iv’e had a good look at the DMV…not giving me any specifics on the matter and Dealing with the DMV over the phone doesn’t sound fun, it’s likely we will just have to find the ins and out’s when we arrive…

You are really going to be in for a bit of a shock, when you try to get your plans up and running.

The first thing you should consider is INSURANCE.
I would recommend calling some insurance agents in the area you plan on buying the car, and see what they can do for you. If they can cover your current license, that’s great. If not, then you need to know what license they need you to have to provide you with insurance.

Once you have insurance, then you can get your vehicle registered at the motor vehicles office. You are going to need an address to register the vehicle at. You would do best to contact the motor vehicles office and see what they need for proof of address, and if you need to have a valid license for their state to get the registration at. Some states are very lax, while others are extremely strict.

If you are lucky, they might even accept a post office box, which will cost you under $40 at any US Post Office location, for 6 months.

Once you know if you need a local driver’s license and can get insurance and registration, you can then truly get your plans under way, and know what the costs will be like.

So, call a couple of insurance agents, and look up the motor vehicles website for the state you plan on buying the car at.

As you can imagine, things have been made slightly more difficult over the past 10 years here in the US, to try and stop people who don’t have good intentions, to just appear in our country, by a vehicle, and turn invisible on our roads for the next several months.

I’m not saying that you have bad intentions, I’m just pointing out that any obstacles you might run into are going to be in place to try and prevent other people from doing exactly what it is you are planning on doing.


If you’re absolutely determined to buy a convertible, a Mazda Miata is likely the most reliable choice for the money. There are a couple listed for sale on Craigslist in the Chicago area for $3500 or so.

As for your budget, doesn’t it make more sense to buy a $4000 car that has a good chance of surviving the trip intact and that you can resell and get your entire investment back out of (more or less) for a net zero cost to you? Versus buying a $2000 car that is likely to break down, require repairs, and lose money for you when you sell it?

Get out of town. I’m sure the Chicago cops would tell you the same thing. Tough crowd there. Maybe get into Wisconsin first.

I could be misleading you too. You will find lots of cars listed in a large city. The motor vehicle people are probably easier to find there. Maybe not, but they are closer. At least you’re not in Boston, you don’t speak the language there. Sorry; you do, they don’t.

If that info isn’t wishy-washy enough, set your search engine to mediocre.

I actually live in illinois, it is only $25 tax IF you buy a vehicle from a private party, AND it is at least ten model years old. Try for all the info you need.

But, advice as someone who knows chicago and illinois, I don’t think you can make it happen without an illinois resident to register it and blah blah. You would have to pay for title and one years registration(plates) up front at DMV. Plus the tax, totals about $250 I think. But none of that matters if you don’t have illinois residency anyhow. You should try to figure out which states sell cars with registration on them, or offer 90 day temp tags for out of state buyers.

Still with your budget, it will be quite a trick.

almost like a riddle!

thanks for the Wisconsin tip, hadn’t thought of that…I have been looking through their DMV site and it does seem more lenient than others I have seen. I have emailed them for specifics.

Maybe a limerick? You might get to tour a brewery in Milwaukee.

Just had some information back from Wisconsin DMV

“You can register the vehicle in Wisconsin if it is going to be operated here. You can register it using a PO Box as your mailing address.”

Seems like this is the way to go! Thanks pleasedodgevan2…

Expand your budget. This plan is, sorry, probably not going to work. State DMV’s are not set up to handle “I’m from another country and I’ll only be here a couple of months but I bought a car” requests. You are going to find yourself in a maelstrom of bureaucracy and you’ll be lucky to get disentangled from it before it’s time for the flight home, and that’s assuming you manage to find a suitable car the day you arrive. You’d be far better off spending more money renting a car than you would be spending a lot of money getting here for the trip and then spending most of it sitting in various government offices trying to explain your mission to a bunch of bored government workers who’s chief joy in life is to say “No.”

Budget of $2000…I’m very leery that you can get a car for that little and not have a problem with for the time frame you’ll be driving it. ESPECIALLY with insurance and tax added in. Not saying you can’t find one. But when you buy such a cheap car…unless it’s fully inspected (expect to pay at least $100 for that) you don’t know what you’re getting…even if it is inspected…a car that cheap…is a gamble.

The $2000 budget is solely for the car, and we also plan on getting any vehicle we intend on buying checked.

Having researched this for the last 3 months, I think I have been made aware of most of the obstacles so thank you for the warnings.

We are also young and pretty stubborn, plus the success stories we’ve heard gives us enough faith to give it a go.

If it all goes wrong, we jump on the Greyhound. Yep its a gamble…but what’s an adventure without a gamble :slight_smile:

Getting a PO Box is critical to the mail delivery of the title. Possession of that title is also critical in selling it, wherever you are. Exactly how are you going to go back to Milwaukee to pick up the title so you can sell the car in Texas? It would be easiest to r also depart from Milwaukee/Chicago, rather than Texas.

I was going to advise against using a hostel address because you are expecting them to hold your mail for three months, or assume it will get forwarded to you in a timely fashion.

With your $2000 budget, you won’t find much. It might be possible to find an ex-taxicab for that price that has 5000 miles of service left. The valuable part of the taxi, the taxicab medallion will have been removed as well as the lights so you can’t use the cab for moneymaking purposes. It will, however, have the hail-me paint job.

At $2000, you are purchasing a throw-vehicle. The former cab is about to be thrown away, but you may be able to squeeze a little more use out of it. Many of these former cabs are Ford’s Crown Victoria model and are easier to repair and have better parts availability than many other cars.

hi thanks for your, post…just a couple of questions…

“It would be easiest to r also depart from Milwaukee/Chicago, rather than Texas”

what did you mean by that?

Exactly how are you going to go back to Milwaukee to pick up the title so you can sell the car in Texas? "

Thanks for raising this, it wasn’t something I had considered, I have however looked into the USPS Automated Mail Forwarding Procedures, we have a friends address in Texas that we can forward mail to.

Problem solved?