How to calculate vehicle tax on a new car or used car by state law
Updated: Aug 13, 2020
Trying to find out what vehicle taxes you incur and have to pay on your vehicle? Looking for general tax information, a tax calculator or motor vehicle tax due dates? In the process of buying or selling a car and curious how to avoid or optimize your sales taxes? Or just trying to learn more about potential penalties for avoiding tax payments and bounty?
You're at the right place! This article is going to answer your questions and provide a lot more context about car taxes by states, motor vehicle types, vehicle sales in general and trade-ins and private party sales in particular.
Car Tax for Every State: Car Tax Calculator
We recently published a study 'What the hell are dealer doc fees?' in which we researched how much dealers are allowed to charge as document preparation fees by state. In parallel, we also looked into vehicle registration fees, sales tax and tax incentives on trade-ins by state:
As you can check in the article mentioned above, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) of each state allows dealers to charge very different amounts of doc fees. Tax rates, however, are not regulated by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) but the Franchise Tax Boards or Department of Treasury instead.
We therefore researched the tax information by looking up the Franchise Tax Board and Department of Treasury websites of every state in the United States for their respective state laws and built a car tax calculator. We specifically researched local taxes on used cars and new vehicles as well as private party vehicle sales.
Furthermore, we researched license plate requirements by state and documented our findings in a separate article called 'Do I need a front license plate?'. The following paragraphs summarize our findings and the takeaways from our research.
How Car Tax is Calculated and When its Due
In the table above, you can find links to the official car tax calculators and guides of the respective states. Most of these pages are .gov domains, i.e. these are official DMV, Tax Franchise Board or Treasury Department government websites with tax calculators, tax handbooks and FAQs of the tax bills, local laws and legislation.
Taxes are complicated. States not only vary in the amount of tax they charge but even in the type of taxes. The most commonly charged vehicle tax is sales tax. Other taxes you a driver should be aware of are are fuel tax, General Excise Tax (GET), use tax, rental tax as well as registration fees that are imposed on the purchase price of a vehicle subject to registration.
In the following we take a look at all these taxes and present more context and examples for better understanding:
If you take a look at Indiana's 336 pages long Handbook of Taxes, Revenues and Appropriations on page 23 for example, you can see how Indiana's fuel tax rate increased over the last decades. Indiana's fuel tax revenue jumped from $800M to $1.4Bn from 2017 to 2018. The Taxpayers are licensed gasoline distributors who are the first to receive the gasoline in the state. The tax is added to the selling price and based on all invoiced gallons of gasoline received less any authorized deductions.
General Excise Tax (GET)
If you take a look at Hawaii's Tax Fact Sheets under Tax Facts 37-1, you will learn that General Excise Tax (GET) is a tax on businesses. Businesses are required to collect sales tax from their customers whereas businesses are not required to collect GET from their customers. Examples of taxable activities include selling retail goods (e.g. new cars and used cars) and services, renting, leasing real property, construction contracting as well as earning commissions. Usually, businesses visibly pass GET on to their customers, which makes GET feel like sales tax.
A number of states (e.g Iowa) charges a 5% motor vehicle one-time registration fee, which is imposed on the purchase price of a vehicle subject to registration. Since registration fee is a percentage of the purchase price, a percentage registration fees like in Iowa very much feels like a tax to the consumer. In other states, the registration fee is a fixed dollar amount. In Washington for example, the registration fee is fixed, vehicle-specific fee based on the VIN.
In California for example, new vehicle and used car dealers have to charge sales tax. Dealers must have a sales tax license issued by the Franchise Tax Board (e.g. California), the Department of Treasury (e.g. Michigan) or the Department of Taxation (e.g. a few other states). In many states with sales tax, the tax varies from county to county. You can take a look at the California map to obtain the exact rate by county. Illinois as another example provides a tax calculator and asks you for your ZIP code to assess your sales tax.
To determine the sales tax rates, tax bills accurately describe what the taxable sales price is. States vary in some ways but generally speaking, separately-listed items that are considered include but are not limited to:
"Processing fees" or "documentation fees.
Manufacturers’ and importers’ excise taxes.
Rustproofing, protection packages, installation of accessories, and other additional work performed on the vehicle.
Manufacturer’s rebates. No deduction is allowed from the sale price for manufacturer’s rebate. The fact that the rebate is assigned by the purchaser to the dealer does not change whether the rebate is subject to sales tax.
Separately-listed items that are NOT considered include but are not limited to:
Discounts allowed by the dealer and taken on sales, including dealer rebate.
Services provided after the customer takes delivery and after passage of title.
Federal Luxury Tax and other retailers’ excise taxes.
Any charge, deposit, fee or premium imposed by a law of this State.
Separately stated finance charge.
Extended warranties, service and maintenance plans.
Credit life insurance and gap insurance.
Older vehicles sometimes benefit from sales tax exemptions. See Maine's and Idaho's tax handbooks and online services as a reference and for more context.
Best Times to Sell a Car to Avoid Taxes and Registration Fees
Since car taxes are complicated and ambiguous, we identified a number of ways to optimize your car ownership experience to minimize tax and registration fees. Two general thoughts are:
Take advantage of trade-in tax incentives
Time your purchase / sale well
Take advantage of trade-in tax incentives
Just like a number of other states, the state of Arizona's gov website offers a vehicle use tax calculator. A vehicle with a purchase prices of $20,000 will cost $1,120 in state tax and $360 in city tax. If, however, you trade-in your old vehicle as part of the down-payment, you can will receive a tax break.
Let's assume a purchase price of $20,000 for your new vehicle and $10,000 as the value of your trade-in. Using Arizona's tax calculator, you'll find that your state tax went down to $560 and your city tax went down to $180.
In 42 out of the 50 states, when you trade in a car to purchase a new one, you will get some sort of sales tax credit on the value of your trade.
Interestingly, some states don't limit your trade-in to a vehicle! Idaho for example outlines that 'merchandise used as payment for other merchandise (often referred to as a trade-in) reduces the amount on which sales tax is charged. To qualify as merchandise, the item traded in must be customer-owned tangible personal property that the dealer will resell in the regular course of business.' We've heard of dealerships taking jewelry, jet-skis and even guns as trade-ins.
Lastly, a number of states are quite 'generous' with regard to the timing of the trade-in. In Arkansas for example, a car buyer receives a 45-day tax credit. That means, a car buyer can benefit from the tax credit forty-five (45) days prior to, or within forty-five (45) days after the purchase of the new vehicle.
Time your purchase / sale well
In most states, your vehicle registration is valid for 1-2 years. Every (other) year, car owners receive a letter from the Department of Motor Vehicle with a registration bill. A common mistake car owners make is to blindly pay the registration renewal without thinking strategically:
The DMV is usually very proactive and send you the renewal letter months before the renewal payment is actually due.
If you're planning to sell your current vehicle, there's no point to pay your registration. If you do so, you're subsidizing the next owner's registration fees.
In sum, the best time to sell a car may therefore be short before your registration renewal is due and - depending on the exact trade-in credit rules of your state - around the time when you're buying a new car to benefit from the tax benefits of trading in.
How to reduce or avoid paying car taxes
As you can see in the table above, there are four states that don't charge any car taxes:
If you register your vehicle in one of those states, you will not be charged any car tax. Therefore, a number of luxury car owners take advantage and indeed register their vehicles in one of those 'car tax haven' states. Montana is the most prominent example.
Another way to drastically reduce your car tax is through private party sales. In California, for example, the sales tax for private party sales is paid buy the buyer when registering the car at the DMV. The DMV, however, has no record (e.g. through a bill of sale) of the transaction and therefore relies on the car shopper's self-reported purchase price.
Just to be 100% clear, we're not encouraging or endorsing any tax evasion. We just want to shed some light on behaviours we have experiences when running a private party car sales service called Carlypso. In fact, we shared our findings with the California DMV in Sacramento.
Find sales tax cheats to make money
Believe it or not, we've observed that the majority of private party car buyers in California don't report the true purchase price of their vehicles to save taxes. Private party sellers submit a release of liability after the sale and are asked to share sales price on the California's DMV website. However, the DMV's systems don't seem sophisticated enough to link the seller's information and the buyer's information. Therefore, California is missing out on tens of millions in sales tax on private party sales.
In February of 2020, California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, and Assembly Member Mark Stone have advanced legislation that would amend the California False Claims Act (CFCA) to enlist private bounty hunters to go after California taxpayers. Tax bounty hunters are a tool that has been available to California's tax authorities for a long time. We remain very curious if the amendment of the CFCA motivates a number of entrepreneurial bounty hunters to also go after sales tax evaders on private party car sales.
Since sales tax evasion is the norm in private party car sales, we highly recommend bounty hunter try to make some quick money through offering cars for sale on Craigslist, OfferUp or Facebook marketplace.
Saving money beyond your car tax
Car taxes usually come to mind when buying, selling or (re-)registering a motor vehicle. The much higher financial burden, however, are your auto loan payments. These payments are recurring on a monthly basis. Every dollar you save on your monthly payments multiplies times 36, 48, 60, 72 or 84 months depending on how long the term of your loan is.
The great news is you can easily realize those multiplied savings through refinancing your auto loan. WithClutch.com is a fully digital platform that lets car owners like you refinance their loan from the comfort of their own home. Our auto loan refinance calculator will help you determine your monthly savings.
No need to set a foot in a bank or credit union. You can lower your rate or get cash in as little as 20 seconds. Follow three simple steps to refinance your auto loan, get approved in seconds and save thousands in minutes.