Buying a Car For the First Time in Pa.? Here’s What You Need to Know

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By Graham Harrington

May 30, 2023

There are a lot of hidden fees and traps car buyers can fall into, especially first timers. Here are some tips to help first-time car buyers have a relatively painless experience.

Pennsylvania may have one of the more developed public transit systems in the country and some bike-friendly cities, but for some residents, having an automobile is a must. It can be tough getting places in this wide, hilly state without a car, especially for those in more rural areas.

Buying a car for the first time can be an especially daunting task, as rising prices have made purchasing a vehicle even more of a serious investment. 

To help, we put together a quick guide focusing on the important things to look out for when buying your first vehicle in the commonwealth. 

Budget for the ‘All-In’ Cost

A car, even a used one, will cost you a healthy chunk of change. And the hefty price tag of the vehicle itself isn’t the only cost you’ll have to consider. Before you buy, make sure you’ve budgeted for additional costs, such as:

Sales Tax

Pennsylvania’s state sales tax is 6% for motor vehicles, the same as other items subject to sales tax. However, if you’re buying a car in Allegheny County there’s an additional 1% local sales tax and an additional 2% in Philadelphia. If you’re looking to save money, it might be worth buying your car somewhere else. 

Motor Vehicle Understated Value Program

In addition to the standard 6% sales tax, the Department of Revenue has a program called the Motor Vehicle Understated Value Program which may increase a car’s price tag. If the Department of Revenue deems that the sale price of a vehicle is significantly lower than the market value, they will tack on additional sales tax. So before you pull the trigger on what you think is a  fantastic deal, it may be worth checking out the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue’s website for details on the program and how it could imapct the cost of the vehicle you’re about to purchase. 


If you buy your car at a dealership this will all be taken care of during the transaction, but customers buying from private sellers have a grace period to insure their vehicle that ranges from 2-30 days in most cases. Still, it’s recommended that car owners get insurance as soon as possible to avoid any sort of issue.   

Additional Fees

In addition to state and local taxes, there are a number of other fees that you should be aware of before you buy. The title fee is $51, the registration fee can range between $35-$84 dollars, and there may be an additional $5 dollar tax depending on your county of residence. 

Where to Find a Car

One positive about buying cars nowadays is that you are spoiled for choice when it comes to methods.


Buying a car straight from a dealership is one of the most reliable methods, but it’s also likely the most expensive. If that’s not an issue, or you’re prepared to pay for the convenience, buying from a dealership will let you skip headaches when it comes to paperwork like insurance, registration, and title. Even if you know the car you want, it’s always wise to shop around a little bit to make sure you’ve picked the right dealership for you. 

Facebook Marketplace

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you can potentially save a lot of money buying a car on Facebook, but buyers beware. Private sellers have absolutely zero incentive to tell the truth when selling a vehicle and Facebook Marketplace lacks any sort of quality control that other online services may have. 

One way to combat sellers who don’t disclose everything they should about a car’s condition is to check the vehicle with a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) service, like Carfax, which will use a vehicle’s 17 digit identification number to reveal issues that may not be visible or accidents that the seller hasn’t disclosed. Once you’ve gone through that process, thoroughly inspect it yourself and test drive it once or twice before finalizing the purchase. If you’ve got a mechanic friend, bring them along to get a professional opinion on the vehicle’s condition.

Online Used Dealers 

Pretty much everyone and their dog has heard of Carvana at this point, but before you commit to the tried and true path, there are a number of competitors that are worth a look. CarGurus excels in finding cheap deals, Autotrader has a massive volume of listings and an advanced search function to find exactly what you need, and CarsDirect is a good choice for any buyer with easy to use tools that can help you find the best price compared to other sites and dealerships in the area.   

Test Drive Tips

Once you’ve found a car you like and reviewed its history, the last step is to take that baby for a spin. Here are a few tips that might just help. 

1. Schedule a day devoted to the test drive. It may be convenient to buy it the day of, but you want to let the honeymoon period wear off so you can make a decision with a clear head.  

2. Bring along a mechanic or car enthusiast friend for your test drive. They’ll be able to spot issues you won’t, and give you well-informed advice before you pull the trigger on an expensive purchase. 

3. Bring a friend and some stuff. The car may be wonderful to drive, but this is a tool you’ll be using to lug people and cargo for years. Make sure it’s able to provide what you need.

4. If buying from a dealership, photocopy your license and bring that copy. Most dealerships will photocopy your license before a test drive, meaning this will not only make the process more convenient but protect you as well. Identity theft around vehicles is on the rise, so make sure you get the copy back when you’re done and destroy it. 

5. Run through the checklist of what to look out for during your drive. You may know what you’re looking for, but it’s always important to double check your priorities in case of a blind spot. 


  • Graham Harrington

    Graham Harrington is The Keystone's social media manager. As a multimedia journalist, he has written for the Denisonian, PAC News, and Today’s Patient. Graham lives in Delaware County and is a graduate of Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

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