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We’ve all seen TV commercials showing a new vehicle topped by a huge red bow being presented by a love one to a love one as a surprise holiday gift. But how can you pull it off without the special person knowing?

Can you really purchase a car and get the title and insurance without your spouse getting tipped off?  Yes, playing a car-gifting Santa could be fully within your capabilities, as long as you have decent credit and you get a little help from the elves at the auto dealership and insurance agency.

Key Takeaways

  • Getting car insurance for the gift vehicle should be easy because you’re probably already on an insurance policy together.
  • If you buy an additional vehicle as a gift for someone, you will have to inform your insurance company about it within 14 or 30 days, depending on the insurer.
  • Get car insurance quotes for the new gift vehicle before you purchase it to avoid any hassle down the road.

Financing and titling

Giving a car as a gift

Your dream of giving a vehicle as a gift can’t become a reality unless you can title the car and finance its purchase. The first step is to contact the finance and insurance manager — the “F&I guy” — at the dealership where you want to make the purchase. Notify him that you would like to give your spouse a car for the holidays without your sweetheart’s knowledge.

Most dealerships will be experts in your state’s Department of Motor Vehicle titling requirements. It makes sense that they would be able to do this do this at the dealership to make it an easy transition. It saves the car buyer a trip to the DMV and it’s a convenience service a dealership can offer, making it more likely you will come to that particular dealership.

If your spouse’s name is going to be on the title, and experts recommend it is, the spouse will have to sign financing paperwork at some point.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t give him or her the car and have your spouse enjoy the surprise, and then have him or her go later to the dealership to sign the paperwork, as long as the person giving the gift has sound credit.

This transaction is typically simple for people with good credit. But if your credit is in the mid-range, you might run into problems. What if your salary alone or credit status doesn’t allow you to purchase the chosen vehicle, but together you could afford the vehicle?

Sometimes a dealership will run the credit for both the gift-giver and the spouse, and they find the credit for the two together enables the purchase. The dealership normally wants both individuals in the couple to sign, but if it’s a gift purchase, the recipient can sign after the car has been delivered.

To get this done, it’s recommended that the gift-giver talks with the dealership’s F&I guy by phone during the latter part of a weekday morning. Most finance managers don’t get in until around 11 a.m. They are financing cars that have been sold, and it usually takes a couple of hours after the 9 a.m. opening time to sell a car.

Discuss your plan for giving a car as surprise gift. Clear as many financing hurdles as you can, before physically visiting the dealership and selecting the vehicle you want to buy. Keep in mind, you may need to call multiple dealerships to find one that will work with you on your gift plan.

It’s doable, and would be a great surprise but it can take a bit of work.

Car insurance for the surprise vehicle

Insurance strategy 1: Add the vehicle to your policy

Getting auto insurance for the gift vehicle should be comparatively easy because you’re probably already on an insurance policy together, says Loretta Worters, vice president of communications with the Insurance Information Institute. So you should be able to call your agent, swear him to secrecy, and have him add the new vehicle to the policy.

“There would be more problems if you’re not married. If you’re just living together, you might be able to get some temporary insurance through the dealer. But that would be very expensive, even for just a few days.”

If you don’t want to be surprised yourself over the cost of insurance for the new vehicle, make sure to get car insurance quotes for the new vehicle before you purchase it. To get a good idea of the cost, you can use our new model vehicle average rates comparison tool before or while you are shopping for the vehicle.

Insurance strategy 2: Check your policy for automatic coverage

Examine your current auto policy and you may find it contains a clause stating that if you buy an additional vehicle you have 14 or 30 days, depending on the insurer, to report the purchase to the insurance company.

“So in a sense, you have automatic coverage for 14 or 30 days on a newly acquired vehicle,” says Eric Roethe, senior product development specialist for personal lines with American Family Insurance.

Say that your auto insurance policy says you have 14 days of automatic coverage before you must officially add the vehicle to your policy. And say you want to present the vehicle to your spouse on Christmas morning. Buying the car on Dec.15 this year would give you until Dec. 29, likely the first post-Christmas business day, to report the purchase, he says.

It’s important to know if you have automatic coverage, don’t assume, and to be aware of the timeline.

If you do have automatic coverage and don’t add in the vehicle in the period allowed, you could be unintentionally driving without insurance. Also, make sure the automatic coverage is what you need. If you have only liability on your current vehicles, that is all that will extend to the new vehicle, which is bad because for a financed vehicle the lender requires you to also carry comprehensive and collision coverage.

Here’s more about automatic coverage for new cars.

Insurance strategy 3: Bind and delay

Another possibility is to ask your car insurance agent to bind the policy but send the paperwork after the vehicle has been given. “Binding” means that coverage is in place but the policy hasn’t been issued yet. Your agent likely has very broad binding authority. “You can call your agent, say, on the 21st, and say, ‘I’m going to buy this new car prior to the holiday, but I don’t want any paperwork delivered until after the holidays,'” says Roethe.

“Most agents have the authority to bind the coverage on the company’s behalf, and they have a period of time before they have to submit the coverage to their company. With most companies, it’s probably going to be at least two weeks that they have before they have to report the binding.”

State Farm spokesperson Missy Dundov also says that insuring a holiday gift vehicle isn’t a substantial challenge. “If a spouse would like to do this gift, in most cases our agents can work with the spouse to pull off this surprise,” she says. “The ‘surprised spouse’ does not need to be part of the process. The gift giver can do it all on their own with the agent.”

Getting your timing right

Depending on your state, you may need precise timing for titling the car. States have different rules for titling vehicles. For example, in Wisconsin, Roethe says, if you are buying a vehicle without your spouse present, the paperwork may contain a stipulation that the lender will send a letter to the home reporting that the spouse purchased a new vehicle.

Given bank processing times, he adds, if a vehicle is purchased on Dec. 23, the form will not likely appear in the mailbox at home before Christmas. But if the car is purchased on Dec. 15, the letter would likely arrive and ruin the surprise.

There’s another reason to make the transaction as close to Christmas as possible. “That’s because if you buy the new car at the dealer and leave with the dealer-provided actual license plates on the car, if the state [Department of Motor Vehicles] is caught up, they might well have a confirmation of registration mailed to you by Dec. 25. Leave as small a gap as possible between purchase and holiday,” Roethe advises.

The only question remaining is where to find a giant red car bow to place atop the vehicle.

“I’ve seen them in dealerships with my own eyes, so I know they’re not just in advertising,” Reed says. “They do exist.” And with online shopping you can also order one online – just make sure your spouse doesn’t open the box before you can hide it so you don’t have to explain a three foot bow.

Additional reporting by Jeff Steele

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Michelle Megna


Michelle, the former editorial director, insurance, at QuinStreet, is a writer, editor and expert on car insurance and personal finance. Prior to joining QuinStreet, she reported and edited articles on technology, lifestyle, education and government for magazines, websites and major newspapers, including the New York Daily News.