Background The majority of renal cell carcinoma (RCC) studies analyze primary tumors, and the corresponding results are extrapolated to metastatic RCC tumors. However, it is unknown if gene expression profiles from primary RCC tumors differs from patient-matched metastatic tumors. Thus, we sought to identify differentially expressed genes between patient-matched primary and metastatic RCC tumors in order to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying the development of RCC metastases. Patients and methods We compared gene expression profiles between patient-matched primary and metastatic RCC tumors using a two-stage design. First, we used Affymetrix microarrays on 15 pairs of primary RCC [14 clear cell RCC (ccRCC), 1 papillary] tumors and patient-matched pulmonary metastases. Second, we used a custom NanoString panel to validate seven candidate genes in an independent cohort of 114 ccRCC patients. Differential gene expression was evaluated using a mixed effect linear model; a random effect denoting patient was included to account for the paired data. Third, The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) data were used to evaluate associations with metastasis-free and overall survival in primary ccRCC tumors. Results We identified and validated up regulation of seven genes functionally involved in the formation of the extracellular matrix (ECM): DCN, SLIT2, LUM, LAMA2, ADAMTS12, CEACAM6 and LMO3. In primary ccRCC, CEACAM6 and LUM were significantly associated with metastasis-free and overall survival (P < 0.01). Conclusions We evaluated gene expression profiles using the largest set to date, to our knowledge, of patient-matched primary and metastatic ccRCC tumors and identified up regulation of ECM genes in metastases. Our study implicates up regulation of ECM genes as a critical molecular event leading to visceral, bone and soft tissue metastases in ccRCC.