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Buying a Vehicle

Here are some preliminary tips on making a vehicle purchase:

  • Thorough research of the vehicle you are considering purchasing, including vehicle registration and title histories. You can research the vehicle's history via the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS).
  • For private sales, you should also obtain a bill of sale document.
  • Make sure you know whether the vehicle’s sales price includes the District's excise tax. Most new car dealerships will collect the excise tax (in addition to the registration fees) and take all the necessary steps to have the vehicle titled and registered on your behalf.
  • If you're titling and registering the vehicle yourself, then you will be required to pay the District's excise tax; therefore, it should not be included in the sales price.
  • You should keep all records associated with the purchase of the vehicle for future reference.


There are certain questions you should ask before you buy any vehicle.

1. Do you have the title to the vehicle and is it in your name or the name of the dealership?

If purchasing from a dealer...

The title should be signed from the previous owner over to the dealer, then the dealer can reassign the ownership when reselling the vehicle, using either the back of the same title or a reassignment sheet. The odometer reading should also be included on the back of the title or reassignment sheet.

If purchasing from a private seller...

The seller must sign over the back of the title to you. If the private seller does not have the title in his/her possession and name, do not purchase the vehicle. Also, check to ensure the vehicle is properly assigned on the back of the title. The odometer reading should also be included on the back of the title. A vehicle that is not properly titled cannot be registered at DC DMV.

Note: if there are multiple owners on the vehicle title, then all owners must sign over the vehicle on the back of the title.

2. What is the vehicle's mileage?

If the mileage on the odometer seems too good to be true (i.e., 1997 vehicle with only 50,000 miles), it probably is. Also, if the odometer numbers are not aligned, there could be tampering with the odometer. Odometer disclosure statements should be available for vehicles less than 10 years old.

3. What is the brand on the title? Is the vehicle a flood vehicle?

In the District, salvage titles from other jurisdictions must retain the salvage brand, even if the vehicle passes DC DMV inspection and can be registered.

4. What major repairs (including repairs associated with the vehicle being wrecked or mechanical failures) have been done on the vehicle and are the receipts available?

Prior vehicle repair records are difficult to obtain. However, if the seller has retained the receipts, then you will have a good idea on whether or not the vehicle has been properly maintained. Any necessary repairs need to be taken into consideration in the sale price of the vehicle.

5. Is there still a lien on the title?

A lien is a “loan” on the vehicle by someone or an entity, like a bank. Vehicles cannot be sold until the lien is cleared or paid.

6. If the seller is a dealership, is the dealership licensed?

Do not be afraid to ask to see a copy of the business license if it is not visibly displayed. If the vehicle is not legally licensed when you purchase the vehicle, you will not be able to register the vehicle with DC DMV.

7. Does the vehicle come with a warranty, if purchased?

A warranty could provide some protection—and peace of mind. New vehicles should always come with a warranty, and you should try to negotiate an extended warranty for used vehicles.

Possible Mechanical Issues

There are also mechanical issues you should check before buying a vehicle:

DC DMV has an emissions inspection for used vehicles (i.e., those previously titled in either DC or another jurisdiction), so it is critical you purchase a vehicle that can pass the inspection. It is a good idea to take the vehicle to a reputable mechanic. If the dealer or private seller refuses to let your mechanic check out the vehicle, you should not purchase the vehicle.

  • Make sure there are no warning lights flashing on the dashboard.
  • Make sure everything on the vehicle is operational, including the windshield wipers, lights, etc.
  • Test drive the vehicle to check for enging noises, steering alignment and worn brake pads.
  • Check the tires for tread wear and tire size matching.
  • Check under the hood by looking for battery leaks, dirty oil, loose hoses, etc.
  • Check for any noticeable smoking when the vehicle idles.
  • Check the body of the vehicle to see if there are any signs the vehicle has been in an accident. Fresh paint jobs are a sign of recent bodywork.
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