Guide to Buying and Owning a Car in the Bay Area, by Startup Lifer Marko

So, you’re looking to get some wheels under you? Hopefully the following will shed some light on what goes into buying and owning a car in the Bay Area. I’ve split this post into sections covering things you should be aware of before and after buying a car referring to some of my own experiences along the way. Towards the end of the post I’ll provide a rundown of the pros and cons of owning a car in the Bay Area, so if you want to save yourself from a 10-minute read feel free to skim down to the bottom!
Will you be working in San Francisco?
Will you be living in San Francisco?
Are you looking to travel within California no more than once a month?
If your answer is more “yes” than “no”, you’ll probably be better off without a car, and should instead look forward to enjoying the Bay Area’s decent public transportation system and getting your daily exercise biking up and down the hills of San Francisco. In any other case, I hope you find this post useful! 🙂

Getting Started

One of the first things to know is that driving in California with a foreign driver’s license is permitted. Taking the driver’s license test to get a local CA driver’s license will only really be useful if (1) you’re looking to get a better rate for your car insurance (not really though, see below) and/or (2) rent vehicles from services like Getaround, Scoot and ZipCar. As of this writing however, at least ZipCar accepts foreign licenses as long as you just submit a separate application and give it a couple of weeks to process. And as for the insurance, providers (e.g. State Farm) do not seem to differentiate between local and foreign licenses, so your rate should not be any higher (YMMV depending on the provider and the agent you visit). A clean driving record will get you a better rate, too. To be eligible for the discounted rate the insurance provider will most likely ask you to provide an official document that states your past driving record (“ajokorttiotepyyntö” in Finnish, issued by Trafi, cost 15€).
2Another important factor to consider before buying a car is the area you are looking to move into. The best neighbourhoods in San Francisco for finding (free) street parking (as per my observation) are Noe Valley, Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, Twin Peaks and Sunset. Living anywhere near the downtown area or parts of Mission would be expensive as it is difficult to find free street parking nearby. The only reasonable way to park in these areas would be to either pay for a garage (+$150) or apply for a residential parking permit (including paperwork you’d happily avoid). Thus, if you’re commuting down south, the ideal neighbourhoods to live would be Noe Valley, Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill or Dogpatch as they all have an easy access to Highway 101 (and in turn, Twin Peaks and Sunset when driving down Highway 280).

Time to Buy

Car dealerships and marketplaces like Craigslist are probably the best places to start looking for deals. While dealerships provide a sense of security, you will probably find that the volume is higher on Craigslist, and that you will get a better deal moneywise as you avoid all the hidden costs that dealerships tend to introduce. That is, forget dealerships, use Craigslist and common sense to bring home a good deal. For reference, I paid $3,600 for a 2001 VW Jetta that had 66,000 miles (and broken side mirrors) on it.
When you’ve come across a good deal and get ready to contact the seller there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • ask the seller to provide you with a vehicle history report (e.g. CARFAX, $40). The report lists i.e. all the previous owners and repair & smog check history
  • ask the seller if you could take the car for a diagnostic check afterwards (~$80) to make sure the car runs as promised (even if the seller seems trustworthy, he/she might simply forget to mention about existing defects) – it’s better to be safe than sorry
  • ask the seller for all the documents he/she has on the car (i.a. repair receipts and a valid smog certificate)
  • visit a car insurance provider (e.g. State Farm) to ask for a quote (expect to pay $60-80/month for a decent coverage). Get the agent’s business card so you can call him/her to activate your insurance right after you’ve purchased the car (it is illegal to drive without an insurance!)
  • if you know someone who is knowledgeable about cars consider asking for a second opinion or bring him/her with you when you go see the car

When you make the deal the seller should give you the car’s registration paper (aka “pink slip”) that includes a separate form, which, once filled by you and the seller, will initiate the process of transferring the ownership and liability of the car to you. To complete this process you will next need to pay a visit to the infamous DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles):

  • you can visit any DMV office and there’s really no need to book a time in advance, just go early (lines start forming already an hour before the opening time). If you wish, you can book a time online (next available time slot usually goes as far as two or so weeks)
  • bring with you to the DMV the title transfer form you filled together with the seller, and expect to pay for the following fees:
    • title transfer fee, $15 (must be paid within 30 days of the purchase date, otherwise a 70$ penalty fee is added)
    • sales tax, 7,5-10% of the purchase price (see below on how to save a few dollars on this)
    • vehicle registration fee (if expired), ~$200 (valid for 1 year at a time, can be paid online as well)

The sales tax you’ll need to pay is calculated directly based upon the purchase price you and the seller write down on the title transfer form on the pink slip. That is to say, you can agree to tweak this number as per your conscience 😉 Once you’ve visited the DMV to pay the necessary fees of the title transfer there will be no need for future visits (unless of course you decide to get a local driver’s license)!

On the Road

So you’re finally ready for the road! The thing you’ll probably find yourself using your car most for is the commute. So let’s go over that first. To beat the heaviest traffic prepare to embrace your inner morning person! Assuming that you’ll be driving south (from San Francisco), leave as early as 6:30AM to beat the morning traffic. Expect to reach Redwood City in about 30 minutes if you live close to Highway 101 (within ~2 miles). By leaving around 07:00AM you’ve most likely already added a good 15-20 minutes to your commute. Best way to avoid getting caught in traffic on your way to/from work is to be either on an early or late schedule: leave home/work either early (6:00-6:45AM / 02:30-3:15PM) or late (9:45-10:30AM / 07:45-08:30PM). Commuting southbound is called “the reverse commute” as the majority of the people commute to the city.
3For the most of my commute I found myself listening to podcasts and the news, chatting over Skype with friends & family and just relaxing. Picking up a co-worker to commute with was another good way to kill time behind the wheel. The mobile network connection on Highway 101 works well enough for Skyping (even on T-Mobile). On Highway 280 the connection is a tad worse.
Another big part of a driver’s day-to-day business is parking. Luckily, street parking in San Francisco (or in the Bay Area in general) is fairly convenient. For the most part, the only thing you need to be aware of is not to park on a given street during so called street cleaning hours, indicated by a white-red sign on the side of the street. There are a fair number of smaller details to be aware of when parking in the Bay Area, e.g. how to park your car properly on a hill to avoid getting ticketed. To learn more, I’d recommend browsing through the sections How to Park Legally and Curb Colors at something I regret never looking up until I started writing this blog post 😉
On occasion you’ll of course need to stop for gas, and perhaps to give the car a wash, too. In general, ARCO has the cheapest gas, while unsurprisingly, Chevron and Shell are on the more expensive side. The most inexpensive gas I came across in the city was at the ARCO on Fell & Divisadero. For a great self-service car wash visit the Bay Shore Car Wash: you pay for what you need ($6 is more than enough to make your car shine again). A basic car wash in the city costs +$30. Finally, here are some quick facts (hard truths) on the topic:

  • expect to see accidents on a daily basis (Google Maps comes in handy)
  • don’t leave any valuables visible in your car to avoid getting your windows smashed in (not even for 5 minutes)
  • you can turn right on red lights (unless there is a sign saying you can’t)
  • crossing the Bay Bridge or Golden Gate Bridge to the city costs ~$5
  • most gas stations offer air & water for free if you take gas
  • a tire pressure gauge will come in handy since hardly any gas stations have them
  • aside from Amazon, AutoZone is the place to visit if you need oil or any auto parts

Time to Sell

So you’ve burned your fair share of rubber and the time has come to find your car a new owner. Again, to get the most value out of your car I’d see the trouble of putting up a listing on Craigslist instead of resorting to a dealership. Start early, preferably already a couple of months before your departure. Be concise and honest in your listing. To make it more attractive list all the recent repairs and/or gadgets you’d be looking to sell with the car. A valid registration, smog certificate and any available vehicle reports (e.g. CARFAX) you might have on the car are worth a mention. For reference, here’s a screenshot of the listing I put up for my Jetta. When selling a used car on Craigslist a sign of interest from potential buyers is better taken with a grain of salt – a good number of the messages I received were just “noise”. Serious buyers won’t send you just few short texts or leave you waiting. It is worth the effort to put up a listing on other online marketplaces as well. I actually ended up getting my Jetta sold via Oodle.
From DMV’s standpoint the only two things you’ll need to take care of when selling a car is to have a valid smog check certificate and submit a Notice of Transfer and Release of Liability (NRL). If the date on your smog certificate has expired (valid for 2 years at a time),  you’ll need to take your car to a smog check before selling it. Many shops that do smog checks offer discount coupons online for a $30-40 smog check (the price is typically +$60 if purchased at the spot). If you do need to take your car for a smog check, give it a  good 20 miles first as old cars tend to put out higher emissions if the engine & exhaust system are not running hot. As for the NRL, you can submit it online on the DMV’s website (no later than 5 days after you’ve sold however).

In Summary

Even though I only spent 6 months in San Francisco (commuting from Noe Valley to Redwood City) I still found a lot of value in owning a car (even more so had I stayed longer). Sure, there’s some effort you’ll need to put in in the beginning while dealing with the seller, the insurance and the DMV, but once that’s out of the way you’ll get to enjoy the perks of having wheels under you. As a quick reference here’s how much you should look to add to your starting budget (at most) for a $3,600 used car during the first two months followed by a list of the good and the bad to help you make a decision!

Purchase price $3,600
Diagnostic Check $80
Car Insurance $150
Title Transfer Fee $15
Sales Tax (8%) $288
Vehicle Registration Fee (if expired) ~$200
Gas $100
Total ~$4,500


  • requires a bigger starting budget
  • the extra effort of purchasing/selling the car
  • incurred costs of potential repairs


  • provides more flexibility in terms of possible places to live
  • easier to deal with errands (especially if you need to move things)
  • helps with the commute
  • easier to travel around (and see more)
  • saves you the trouble (and cost) of renting a car
  • you finally understand what all the DMV jokes are about.

Marko is working as a Web Engineer at Synack. He applied for an internship in the last Spring Batch, and started working at Synack last April.
Synack is hiring again! Check out the open positions for Front End Software Engineer and Web Software Engineer and apply latest on Sunday!

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