Saturday, February 2, 2013

Buying an Overpriced Car in Costa Rica

Posted by Jim

Before we moved to Costa Rica, we knew that we wanted to own a car here. At first, we researched buying a car in the United States and driving it down, but between the import taxes (up to 80% of the value determined by the government!), travel expenses (border crossings, gas, food, lodging, etc.), and the time (at least 10 days), we decided that it would be better to buy a car once we were in Costa Rica. While we know some Spanish, being able to say, "Where is the bathroom?" and, "Yes, I would like another beer, please." wasn't going to help us in this situation. We searched on the internet and found a couple who helps gringos like us find and purchase cars. We sent them an email describing what we were looking for, and they located a number of cars at local dealerships that met our needs.

On a Wednesday morning, we were picked up by our Tica helper. Our first stop was a tiny little dealership that had a number of early-2000 vintage Hyundai Accents that were fresh off the boat from Korea. Everything down to the warnings on the sideview mirrors was written in indecipherable Korean characters. We took the first car out for a spin to see how we liked it. Bad clutch, bad brakes, the steering wheel shook, and half the cylinders cut out under load. For a car like this in the U.S., I would have offered $500 and made the seller buy me lunch and a beer.

The next 5 cars we drove were not much better. Whenever I pointed out a problem to the salesman, the answer was always the same, "No problem! We'll fix that. No charge." There was something about the way he said it that didn't make me feel good. Perhaps it was because he also told me, "the brakes squeal because they're new," and, "the clutch barely engages because it's adjusted for personal preference." I think that the exact moment I stopped trusting him was when he promised that the air bags would still deploy in an accident, contrary to the position taken by the steadily illuminated warning lamp on the dash.

We visited a second dealership and their cars were just as bad, but shinier. Bad clutch, broken speedometer, check engine light, bad CV joints, and so on. I peeked into the mechanics' area, where I saw a transmission laying open in the dirt, half-filled with feral dog urine. This was likely the "new" transmission that the salesman promised for the car that I had just complained about... you know, the one that wouldn't stay in gear. Many people recommend buying cars that are recently imported to Costa Rica ("for inscription") because they haven't been exposed to the bad roads. Perhaps more importantly, newly imported cars haven't been exposed to the bad mechanics. At this point, I was getting pretty discouraged. I was on the verge of pulling Natalie aside and suggesting that we reconsider the idea of getting a car at all if these were the only options.

Respite finally came at the third dealership, where we found a 2002 Hyundai Elantra fresh from the United States. It wasn't beautiful by any definition, but, by this point, to say that we had lowered our expectations was a gross understatement. On the test drive, it felt like a normal car. It accelerated, stopped, stayed in gear, and went in a straight line. Amazing! Pure automotive genius! We drove a few other cars (12 in all), and finally settled on the Elantra. Curious why the car had been deported from the U.S., we ran a CARFAX report to check its title history. Thankfully, it came back clean (enough). After working out a deal to have a few things fixed, we settled on a price just under $8,000 USD! Remember those import taxes I mentioned? They're nearly $3,000 USD for a car that's over 10 years old!

Our "new" car has four wheels and goes forwards and backwards! Brilliant!
Before we could take the car home, we had to wait until the international money transfer cleared, papers were signed, government paperwork was filed by an attorney, inspections were performed, taxes were paid, insurance coverage was obtained, and plates were issued. Two weeks after selecting a car, we finally drove our prize home. I've since nicknamed the car "bad connection" for all of the wonky electrical issues. If you're in Costa Rica and you see a car with the headlights flashing with the blinkers, that's us. Please wave.