Office of International Programs (OIP)

Buying a Car in the U.S.

New Cars

Students interested in buying a new automobile should plan to spend time looking at different cars and models, comparing basic prices and additional costs of optional equipment, and getting advice from experienced people who are not directly involved in selling automobiles. Consumer Reports (magazine for evaluation of various products) is available at newsstands and in public libraries, and can be referred to for specifications and ratings for most American and foreign cars.

Used Cars

A used car is less expensive to buy than a new one, but there are greater risks of car trouble and repair costs. Used cars are offered for sale on the bulletin boards on campus and in newspapers, and most automobile dealers who sell new cars also sell used ones. Most automobile dealers and most banks have a copy of the "Blue Book" ( ) which gives average prices for most years and models of used cars.

Road Test & Mechanical Check-Up For Automobiles

We strongly recommend that you have any used car checked by a good mechanic before you buy it. A mechanical check-up involves tests which can be given only by a skilled mechanic or a reputable car diagnostic center not associated with the seller.

Ask the mechanic to advise you on the value of your car in terms of parts available, resale and mechanical upkeep. A mechanical check-up before you purchase a car may save you hundreds of dollars.

Plan Your Purchase In Advance

Before your visit to the used car dealer, it is well to plan your purchase - and include in your plans: age and type of car you want, price, down-payment, and terms of financing. You should make a note of the Blue Book value of the car you hope to buy. When you visit the used-car lot, explain to the salesman that you do NOT intend to buy a car now and that you plan to shop around and compare prices. Do not permit the salesman to urge you to make a quick decision. Compare prices. Check prices at three or four other car dealerships before making your decision.


When comparing prices, also compare the cost of different financing. Financing costs amount to an average of 20 to 30% of the total cost of a car purchased on credit. The actual financing costs vary widely, with the average interest rate ranging between 5-10% per year. Financing through a bank or a credit union is usually preferable to financing through an automobile dealer.

Contract Documents

Before signing ANY paper, make certain that you understand all the details of the sale. If you have not had a mechanical checkup you should write somewhere (preferably in red pencil), "Sale subject to mechanical checkup."

Pink Slip

The purchase of a new or used automobile involves a contractual arrangement. Any purchase must include proof of ownership. The dealer or previous owner must provide the certificate of ownership, called the "pink slip," and indicate on the slip that you are the new owner. You must have this pink slip to register the vehicle or sell it.

Vehicle Registration

The State of California requires that all motor vehicles be registered at the time of purchase or transfer of ownership. This applies to automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, motor scooters, and all other motor vehicles. If the car is already registered in California, take the pink slip and anti-smog certification to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). If the car is from out-of-state, take the registration card and pink slip, the car itself, and anti-smog certification to the Department of Motor Vehicles. It is not required to show proof of insurance--nor must the owner or person registering the car know how to drive or be licensed.

Some new-car and used-car dealers will take care of the registration for you. Members of the California State Auto Association (CSAA) may register at the CSAA offices. Upon payment of registration fees, a temporary registration slip and license plates will be issued. Ownership is recorded in the state capitol in Sacramento, and a regular registration slip will be mailed to you.

Motor vehicles must be re-registered each year, and there is an annual registration fee. Notice of registration usually is mailed to your home address and any change of address must be reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The closest locations of the Department of Motor Vehicle are:

SAN FRANCISCO: 1377 FELL STREET (415) 557-1179
Directions from SFSU
: Take the "M" Oceanview streetcar at 19th and Holloway going towards downtown. Exit at Castro Street Station. Transfer to the #24 Divisadero Bus (northbound) and exit at Divisadero and Fell Street. Walk 2 blocks west to the DMV.

DALY CITY : 1500 SULLIVAN AVENUE (650) 994-5700
Directions from SFSU
: Take the 121 SamTrans bus from 19th Avenue in front of the Stonestown Shopping Center and exit at 92nd Avenue and Edgeworth.


Automobile Insurance

Drivers of automobiles, motorcycles, and other motor vehicles have a financial responsibility in case of an accident that involves injury, death, or damage to property or another vehicle. DO NOT DRIVE WITHOUT INSURANCE! If you are cited for a traffic violation by a police officer, California law requires that you provide the name of your insurance company and your policy identification number. Failure to do so may result in fines of up to $250 and loss of your driver's license. If you are involved in an accident resulting in damages over $500 or any injury or fatality and you do not have insurance, your license will be suspended for one year, even if the accident is not your fault.

The insurance which fulfills the State of California legal minimum requirements:

Personal Liability : insurance coverage of $15,000 for injury or death of one person in an accident, and $30,000 for injury or death of more than one person in one accident.

Property Damage : coverage of $5,000 for damage in any one accident.

With small additional premium payments it is possible to secure considerably higher coverage for personal liability and property damage. Other insurance coverage that can be included in your insurance policy is collision coverage which pays for repair damage to your car caused by non-vehicle damage, such as storms, fire, windshield damage, vandalism, theft, etc.; and medical coverage which pays for injuries to yourself or your passengers. Uninsured motorist coverage is also strongly recommended.

If a motor vehicle is purchased on the installment plan and financed through a bank or lending agency, the "legal owner" is the financial institution until the vehicle is paid for, at which time you will be the legal owner. In the meantime you are the "registered owner." The legal owner or the dealer may arrange automobile insurance which you pay for; this is possible and easy, but is not necessary if you prefer to arrange for your insurance through an insurance broker.

The cost of insurance coverage depends on the age and sex of the driver, previous driving record, place of residence, and the different types and amounts of coverage included in the insurance policy. An example: The premium payment for minimum insurance coverage for an unmarried man between 21 and 25 years of age would amount to $800-$1,500 (approximately) per year, although this may vary with the value of your automobile.

Note : If you purchase an older car over 5-7 years, you should remember that you may get only liability insurance, which covers damage to the other car and medical payments for any person injured in an accident, AND costs considerably less than complete coverage. Ask your insurance agent.

If you are involved in an accident DO NOT LEAVE THE SCENE OF THE ACCIDENT. Ask someone not involved in the accident to telephone the Police Department. When the police arrive, they will obtain all the necessary information, arrange for an ambulance or tow truck (if necessary), and then give you permission to leave. Notify your insurance company. If you have a camera with you, take photographs.

Law On Auto Repair

The California Bureau of Automotive Repair protects the customer against fraudulent automobile repairmen. The Bureau licenses all auto repair facilities in the state. It has a staff of 150 persons, including about 70 "field" workers to investigate consumer complaints regarding auto repair. The law also requires that:

1) Customers be provided with a written estimate of labor and parts before any repair work is undertaken, and no charge be make without customer approval.
2) An invoice describing all service work and parts be given to the customer.
3) A customer be given the replaced parts he is charged for, if he requests them before the work is undertaken.
4) The installation of used or rebuilt parts be noted on the invoice.
5) No repairs may be done by a firm other than the facility the customer is patronizing unless the customer is notified or it was impossible to notify him.

Auto repair firms are required to post their licenses along with a sign showing the phone number and address of the California Bureau of Automotive Repair.

California State Automobile Association
(Known as "Triple A" or "AAA")

The San Francisco office is located at 150 Van Ness Ave. (415) 565-2012 . Membership is open to all automobile travelers. Benefits include free trip planning services, maps, emergency road service, discounts on car rentals, and California State vehicle registration. Automobile insurance for members can be arranged. Eligibility requirements are: valid California Driver's License, and one year of driving experience with six months prior insurance coverage by another agency.

Car Rental

Cars may be rented for a day, a weekend, or longer. See "Automobile Renting and Leasing" in the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory. Some agencies offer discount rates and "package deals" over long holiday weekends. Some agencies may not rent to any one under 25 years of age. A valid driver's license is required.

Motorcycles & Mopeds

Although they are inadequate for some transportation purposes, motorcycles and mopeds are a relatively inexpensive form of transportation. In addition, many people report that motorcycle parking is much easier to find than car parking. They must be registered at a State of California Department of Motor Vehicles. Anyone operating a motorcycle or moped must know the California Vehicle code and must have a license that specifically authorizes the driving of motorcycles.

Pedestrian Right-Of-Way

Motor vehicles and bicycles are required to give the right-of-way to pedestrians. All vehicles MUST STOP or slow down to allow people who are walking to cross a street safely. This rule applies whether or not there are stop signs or pedestrian crosswalks. Pedestrians who cross streets at other than street intersections or marked crosswalks are "jaywalking." Although jaywalking is illegal and subject to fine, even jaywalkers have the right-of-way over vehicles.

Smog Certificates

Smog check certification is also required in order to register your car. For a smog certificate, go to a local service station or a mechanic licensed to do inspections. He/she will issue a certificate, notify the Department of Motor Vehicles, and install a smog device if necessary.

Seat Belts

In California, fastened seat belts are mandatory for all drivers and front-seat passengers. Children under age 3 or fewer than 40 pounds in weight must be strapped into a state-approved car seat. Many hospitals offer a rental/loan program of car seats for new parents.


SF State Home