The short answer is probably yes, but it depends. The laws pertaining to smog are different in every state, or nonexistent in some. So, for now, we’re going to look at California’s smog laws which are among the strictest in the country.
In a nutshell, any car with a gasoline powered engine between 1975 and up to six years old needs to pass a smog check every two years to complete the registration process.
Cars with diesel powered engines made before 1997, cars that run on natural gas, any car weighing more than 14,000 pounds, electric cars, trailers and motorcycles are exempted from California's smog requirements. Some counties don’t even require a smog test. Compare this to Arizona, where almost all vehicles made after 1967 are required to pass a smog test. Even motorcycles outside of the Tucson area are required to pass a smog test.
So on the surface, California's smog rules don't seem so bad, right? Especially compared to Washington D.C., where every vehicle that creates emissions made after 1968 is required to pass a smog test twice every year. Where California laws get particularly dicey is when it comes to what is required to pass the smog test.
Smog tests in California came with new regulations at the start of 2013 in the form of the STAR program, which deviates from and replaces the prior Gold Shield and Test Only programs. The new STAR program instated multiple tests that cars must pass in order to complete smog certification and thus the registration process.
The STAR program’s goal is to ensure that cars are upholding emissions standards. Certain parts of the car are present for this exact reason, and the STAR program’s test requires successful completion in three separate facets.
The first is a visual inspection, which ensures that the parts needed are there, followed by a functional inspection which indicates whether or not the parts are working, and ending with a tailpipe inspection which is making sure that the car emits no visible smoke altogether.
A car must pass all three of these tests, and if it doesn’t then repairs are necessary to make sure that it will pass the next time around, which can become costly. One of the parts necessary is a catalytic converter as part of the exhaust system, which can cost close to $1,000 new depending on the type of car, and lots of cars have more than one. This is the part of California smog laws that is so strict, where getting a car registered becomes more than just an annual fee, but potentially thousands of dollars worth of repairs.
If you qualify for financial assistance, California’s Bureau of Automotive Repair will help out via the Consumer Assistance Program, but only with up to $500 to be used towards emissions-failed repairs.
A vehicle made between 1975 and 1995 will have less smog parts than a later vehicle, and because of this it won't be under the same scrutiny as the later vehicles. However, an older vehicle will probably be in worse shape and have a harder time passing things like the visible smoke inspection.
If you’re selling your car, you must provide a valid certificate indicating that the car passes smog. These certificates become invalid 90 days after the test is completed. However, if your car was made prior to 1975 then it does not require smog to register, so, in short yes you probably will need to smog but again, it depends.
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