Skip to main content
Savings & Spending

Buying a Car in North Carolina

woman sitting in car while someone else hands her keys

If you're in the market for a new or used car, buying can be a fun and rewarding milestone. However, it requires some planning to help ensure you get the best deal possible. We'll walk you through each step of the process so that you feel more prepared for your next vehicle purchase in North Carolina. 

1. Determine your budget

The first thing you should do when buying a car is to determine how much you can afford. Avoid being tempted to purchase and finance more than you need. For instance, if all that matters is getting from point A to point B, perhaps an older used car would better suit your needs and budget.

In addition to considering whether or not the car will fit into your budget, it's important to remember the following costly factors:

Gas: To calculate this budget line item, determine how much gas mileage your ideal car gets, how many miles you plan to drive per week, and the typical per-gallon cost at your local gas station.

Insurance rates: This amount will vary greatly based on your ideal car, driving record, and what you’ll use your car for (business, personal, etc.).

Costs of registration fees: The registration fee is $38.75 for a private passenger vehicle in North Carolina and increases for large private trucks. Regional taxes and fees range from $1-8 depending on where you reside in North Carolina. Notary fees range from $2-9. Additional fees of up to $180 apply for electric vehicles and personalized license plates. Fees are subject to change. All fees can be viewed on the North Carolina DMV website.

Costs of title fee: North Carolina also has a fee to obtain a Certificate of Title, which is $56 and is necessary when a vehicle is purchased.

Taxes: Currently, North Carolina collects a 3% highway-use tax assessed each time a title is transferred.

Maintenance and repair costs: This is highly variable, but you should consider budgeting at least $200-300 per quarter to cover oil changes, tire maintenance, and unforeseen repairs.

2. Research your financing options

Car-buying can be a significant financial burden, so understanding your financing options at the beginning is crucial to navigating the rest of the shopping process. Being a member of SECU gives you access to multiple options and competitive rates for car financing. Some options include:

Auto Power Program: If you want the flexibility to purchase a new or used vehicle without the hassle of dealer financing, our Auto Power Program allows you to shop and make a deal on the spot. Auto Power provides you with a pre-approved check, up to a specific dollar amount, for purchasing a vehicle from a licensed auto dealer.

Used vehicle loans: If you’re planning to shop for a used vehicle that is 10 years old or less with less than 150,000 miles, we offer fixed-rate financing with several term options.

New vehicle loans: Looking for a sparkling new ride? A new vehicle loan from SECU might be the right choice for you. This fixed-rate financing can act as an “all-in-one,” covering up to 100% of the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) and an additional 20% to cover purchase-related expenses such as tax, tags, and warranties for qualified borrowers.

3. Research and test drive your next car

Once you’ve identified a vehicle that meets your needs and budget, it’s time to do additional research. Researching the vehicle will help make your purchase decision easier and ensure you get a good deal on your next car.

If the car is used, consider these steps to get a full picture of the car’s value and condition:

Car history report: A car history report can tell you if any accidents or damage have been reported to authorities since the car was first purchased. The report will also show whether there have been previous owners, how many miles were driven by those owners, and when they owned the vehicle, which gives insight into how well cared for it has been over time.

Safety and value research: Visit the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website to search vehicle safety ratings. Also, research the value of your prospective vehicle on a reputable site like J.D. Power.

Test drive: Take the car for a test drive on a highway, a bumpy road, and in a parking lot to get a feel for how it operates in various settings.

Personal car inspection: You should always inspect a used car before buying it to ensure everything is in working order and there aren't any major issues with its condition or safety features like brakes, tires, or headlights.

Professional car inspection: North Carolina has no “lemon laws” for used cars to protect you from dishonest private sellers, so getting a thorough, professional opinion is crucial if considering a used car. From safety systems to comfort features, an experienced mechanic will know what to look for to ensure your vehicle is working properly. 

Many of these steps also apply to your car search if the car is new. Always research your prospective car model’s features and safety ratings before visiting a dealership and asking for a test drive.

4. Negotiate on price

Once you've found a vehicle that meets your needs and is in decent condition, it's time to talk money. Negotiating on price is the most important part of buying a car, but it can also be the most stressful. You want to ensure you get the best deal possible while not paying too much for a vehicle that's heavily used or has hidden problems.

Here are some tips for negotiating prices for new or used cars:

  • Come armed with valuation information from J.D. Power and ask the seller how much they want for the car. This will give you an idea of how much they're willing to negotiate (and serve as an opening offer).
  • If their initial price seems high, consider offering an amount lower than your ideal price point (this should give both parties room for movement). The seller may say no at first. If you can, wait them out until they start lowering their offer before raising yours back up slowly until both parties agree upon something reasonable.
  • Don't hesitate to walk away if the price still seems too high. You can always continue your search with another model or seller.

5. Close the deal

At a dealership

If you’re buying a new or used car from a dealership, they will typically handle all the ownership, title transfer, and registration paperwork for you. Read thoroughly through any contracts before signing on the dotted line and turning in payment. Depending on the dealer, you have several options for paying:

Through a private seller

Reached a price you’re happy with? Now you’re ready to close the deal and pay for your new-to-you car. The downside of going through a private seller is completing the transaction and all the necessary documentation yourself. There are several documents you will need to secure from the seller during the sale:

  • A signed and notarized vehicle title
  • A completed Odometer Disclosure Statement
  • A completed Damage Disclosure Statement
  • A bill of sale – this is optional for private sellers, but is recommended

6. Inspect, insure, and register your car

If you purchased your car through a private seller, there are a few more steps to take. Before registering your used car, you must take it for a safety inspection. Several counties in North Carolina also require an emissions test. If your car is financed, it will need full coverage insurance; continuous liability insurance is also required on all titled vehicles, so be sure to get the necessary coverage.

Once your car has passed inspections and is insured, you can gather all the required documents to register the car at the DMV office in your county. Bring your title, title application, driver’s license, proof of insurance, and other applicable paperwork.

7. Drive away with your new car

If you purchased your car through a dealership, they will likely handle all the title and registration work. Once all your documents are accepted and you’ve paid the necessary fees, you’re done. You’ve got a new set of wheels ready to take on the road.