Got a Car That Won’t Pass Smog Tests? Here’s What You Need to Do

Marc Skirvin
Marc Skirvin

What's in this Article

The transportation sector accounts for 55% of all nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in the US. NOx gases, unfortunately, are some of the main causes of smog and acid rain.

Smog itself has shown to impair lung functions, as well as cause eye and nose irritations.

As such, smog tests have become law in many states. In fact, only 16 of the 50 US states have no statewide requirement when it comes to emissions inspections. The rest, plus DC, have some form of smog-related law in place.

That said, you need to be aware of what happens if your car doesn’t pass smog checks. This way, you can reduce your chances of wasting money on a ride that will only flunk the test.

Ready to learn the consequences you’ll face if your car won’t pass smog tests? Then let’s get right into it!

Why Are Smog Tests So Important?

Smog tests are a way to make sure that vehicles don’t generate elevated levels of pollutants. Smog exposure, after all, can cause both short- and long-term health effects. For starters, it can lead to respiratory irritations and aggravated asthma symptoms.

Worse, smog contributes to the eight million premature deaths worldwide. It is, after all, a key component of air pollution.

At the same time, smog checks are also a vital indicator of the health of your car. For instance, it won’t produce a lot of smog if it doesn’t misfire, and instead, properly mixes air and fuel. If its evaporative control system works fine, it also shouldn’t create excess smog.

That said, if your ride produces plumes of exhaust smoke, then that’s a sign something’s wrong with it. This symptom alone will surely make your car fail its smog check.

So, What Happens If Your Car Doesn’t Pass Smog Checks?

The DMV won’t allow you to register your vehicle that flunks its smog test. Since you can’t register your car, it will be illegal for you to operate it.

Any Chance of Having It Registered?

Even if you live in California, where laws on smog are the strictest, you still have one more option. That’s to get your vehicle’s exhaust system up to par until it passes all of the test’s sections. We’re using California as a basis, as 12 other states (plus DC) follow the Golden State’s standards.

That said, California requires three tests for gasoline-powered vehicles to go through. These include the Emissions Measurement, Visual, and Emission Control Functional tests. The Emissions Measurement test is only for gasoline vehicles.

Keep in mind that failing any of these three tests will automatically result in a failed test result. That’s why it’s easy to flunk smog tests — in fact, in 2015 alone, 10% of the 11 million tested vehicles in California failed.

The Dreaded Red Sticker

In many states, failing a smog or emissions test will get you (and your ride) a sticker, usually a red one.

In New Jersey, for instance, this dreaded red sticker will go on your windshield. That sticker will have a month written on it. You have up to a month from the last day of that indicated month to get your ride’s exhaust system fixed.

In Massachusetts, you’ll get a red “R” sticker if your vehicle fails the safety test. If you get a black “R” sticker, then that means you failed the emissions test. Either way, you’ll get 60 days from the day of the test results to get your car fixed and re-inspected.

Your Repair Options

Depending on your state, you may have to get your car repaired only by a licensed Smog Check technician. In this case, the technician must also perform the repairs at a licensed repair station.

Once the technician completes the repairs, you can bring your ride back to a Smog Check facility. Note that for some vehicles, the inspection may have to be at a STAR station. In this case, the second smog test must also be at a STAR facility.

What Happens If Your Car Still Won’t Pass the Second Test?

If this happens in California, then you have no other choice but to bring your ride to a technician once again. This will continue until your car finally passes, or you throw in the towel and replace your car instead.

Other states are a little more lenient, so long as you’ve done all you can to get your wheels repaired. For instance, in DC, spending at least $958.60 to have your emission system fixed can grant you a two-year waiver. However, you need to get these repairs carried out within 60 days from the time of the failed inspection.

Another state that grants an even more lenient emissions waiver (of up to a year) is Vermont. Here, you only need proof that the emissions-related repairs will cost more than $200. That can be an estimate from a licensed technician, or if you still want to drive that car, a receipt of the repairs.

Note that most states that grant waivers only do so once. Meaning, the next time your car is up for a smog test, it must already pass. Otherwise, you won’t get any more extensions.

Can You Sell a Car If It Doesn’t Pass Smog?

This depends on your state, but in California, it’s illegal to sell a car that doesn’t have a smog certificate. The smog check on the vehicle should also have taken place within 90 days from the time of the sale.

Other states that require smog tests do allow the sale of a non-smog-certified vehicle. However, you need to put this into writing and have the buyer sign the document. You may also have to submit a copy of the document (notarized) to your state DMV.

Another option to get rid of that car rife with liabilities is to file a “Planned Non-Operation” (PNO) report. This involves informing the DMV that you no longer plan to use the car on public roads and highways. Once your ride gets a PNO status, you can then sell it as is.

So, Get Over Your Car or Continue Repairing It?

This completely depends on you, but you also need to consider the costs of fixing up your car. Even if you pass the smog test now, it’s still possible that the vehicle will fail the next one. Especially if its catalytic converter is already showing severe signs of disrepair.

For starters, if your car has been overheating quite often these days, that’s a solid sign of a bad cat converter. In this case, you may already need a new catalytic converter, which unfortunately, can cost up to $2,000.

If you have an older car, then you likely have issues other than a bad emissions system. You may also be facing major suspension or under-the-hood issues, such as a failing engine. These are all signs that it’s time to consider selling your car.

You also have the option to take apart your car and sell them part-per-part. If you’re a handyman, you have a complete car toolbox, and you’re fine getting all greasy, then this can be a good project. Do note that it may take a lot of time before you can sell all the parts though.

Also, depending on your state, you may need a permit to part out and work on your non-smog-certified car. Check with your local DMV to confirm if you first need to secure this permit or certificate.

Retiring Your Car: The Fastest Way To Deal With That Smog-Generator

Some states, including California, offer a retirement program for non-smog-certified vehicles. This involves bringing the vehicle to the state DMV for proper disposal. The amount you’ll get for retiring your car depends on your state, as well as the condition itself of the vehicle.

That said, you may be able to get more money for your ride if you work with a cash for cars buyer. These are companies that specialize in purchasing all types of cars, working or not. Because they consider the entire vehicle — not just the exhaust — then they may give you a better deal than the DMV.

Throw in the Towel With That Smog-Test-Failing Car

There you have it, your ultimate guide on what happens if your car doesn’t pass smog tests. Regardless of where you live, the consequences aren’t pretty, so it’s best to get your ride up to standards. If, however, your banger is too beat up that it keeps failing the tests, it may be time to admit defeat and just get rid of it.

Ready to say goodbye to the headaches caused by your smog-belching vehicle? We can help! Send us your info and vehicle details now so we can work out a fair purchase offer.

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About the Author


Marc is the Co-Founder of Cash Auto Salvage and Director of daily operations. He retired from a leading Internet Marketing company in 2013 and has been involved in the automotive industry ever since.

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