Although second nature to most Brits, to Americans the stages involved between buying a car and getting it on the road can seem quite convoluted.
Once you have picked a car and decided to part with your money, there will be three additional items (and consequently expenses) you will need to consider: road tax, MOT test and insurance.
The MOT test is a roadworthiness test used in the UK on vehicles over three years old. It tests the safety, roadworthiness and exhaust emissions of vehicles, and is not a test of the vehicle’s mechanical condition (your car could breakdown on the way home from the MOT test center following a successful MOT test.) The MOT test must be carried out at one of the UK’s registered MOT test centers and usually costs in the region of GBP 50 (for a standard car). Cars over three years old must have annual MOT tests. It is illegal to drive a non-exempt vehicle on public roads without a valid MOT test certificate. Also, your car will need to pass an MOT test before you can purchase a road tax disc. The test is more thorough than the state inspections used in some US states (at least, in our experience).
If you buy a secondhand vehicle, then there may be several months remaining on the MOT test certificate. If this is the case, you will not need to have your vehicle tested until the anniversary date of the existing certificate.
Once your MOT test is taken care of you can proceed to get a tax disc. The tax disc is akin to the US vehicle license and registration, but for most, other than very new economical cars, it is more expensive (usually upward of GBP 100, and can be as much as GBP 400). You can get a tax disc at either the post office or a local DVLA center. Any vehicle used or just parked on public roads is liable for the tax, and stiff penalties are in place for those who do not hold a current tax disc.
If the dealer from whom you buy your car has a “documentation fee” then you should ask him what this covers. We have found that it usually means he will walk down to the local post office and transfer the tax disc to your name. For this he may charge you about GBP 50. It’s something you can do easily yourself.
Similar to the MOT certificate, if buying a secondhand vehicle, the existing tax disc may have several months left to run.
The third and final requirement for getting a car on the road in the UK is valid motor insurance. There are very many insurance brokers in the UK, so be sure to shop around. If possible, avoid brokers altogether and talk directly to an insurer. There are several insurers that deal directly with the public. Direct Line is one, there are others. We very strongly suggest you talk to these before making a decision on your motor insurance; it could save you many hundreds of pounds per year.
Be very wary of the current fad of insurance comparison sites. In our experience, these do not always list many inexpensive insurers and are mostly a vehicle for brokers to ply extra trade.
If you plan on driving on your US or overseas license then you should expect a hefty annual insurance premium (likely to be upward of GBP 1100 per year!) from high street broker sold policies. You might have no choice but pay exaggerated premiums for 12 months until you establish a driving record in the UK. However, if you have a clean insurance record in the US then read on!
UK motor insurance has a “reward” system based on the concept of “no-claims”. For each full year you drive without an insurance claim against a UK insurer you earn points that give discounts on premiums for subsequent years. This is no good if you have spent the last 5 or 10 years driving in the US! So, why am I telling you this? Well, if you talk directly to an insurer (such as DirectLine) they might be willing to honour your clean insurance record from overseas. If you have, say, 5 years claims free with State Farm in the US then the insurer will consider a letter from State Farm when assessing your insurance. You need to be able to prove a claims free record with your US insurer.