When we moved to Costa Rica this past July, one of our first priorities was to buy a car. We couldn’t wait to be cruising down the road, a warm breeze blowing our hair, on our way to hidden waterfalls and sleepy beaches. It all sounded so easy, just bring our own car from the United States or wait and buy one when we got here. We could handle that. We soon discovered, however, that like many things in Costa Rica, it wasn’t going to be that easy.


Option one, bringing our car, ended up not making sense because of import duties. When you ship a car to Costa Rica, the government taxes it a whopping 50-80% of the “retail value.” Retail value is determined by the Costa Rican government and is usually much higher than the Kelly Blue Book value. Since shipping also would be a huge hassle because of the customs process, we moved on to option two, waiting to buy until we arrived.

We knew cars are expensive in Costa Rica but prices proved to be even higher than we expected—so much so that the thought crossed our minds not to get a car at all. But after living car-less for over a month, we decided that we wouldn’t survive for long without one. Coming from Boston, we are all for public transportation but found out fast that riding the bus was not always practical. A simple trip to town to run errands would often turn into an all-day affair. Don’t get us wrong, if you live near one of the larger cities, buses are a lot easier because there are more routes. In more remote areas though, like the Southern Zone where we live now, buses are infrequent and there isn’t much within walking distance. With a little money in our pocket from the sale of our car back home and the frustration building, the hunt for some wheels was on.  

Where to Look for a Car

In our extensive research, we had read some horror stories about unscrupulous used car dealerships. Not that they are all bad but some people have had bad experiences. Maybe the car had its odometer turned back or the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the body did not match the one on the frame or engine. Then there was the overwhelming thought of being taken advantage of because of the language barrier. Salespeople in the States were bad enough when we could understand them, but in Spanish, yikes! In addition, because we lived far from the capital, and most of the dealers, we couldn’t casually look around; the bus trip alone would take all day. We really wanted a local, private sale.  

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A typical used car lot in Costa Rica

Being from the United States, our first inclination was to check, where else, but Craigslist. Listings on Craigslist were a little sparse though. It was clearly not the primary site to post cars, so I asked a few locals where they look. I got two different options: crautos.com and encuentra24.com. CR Autos had the most inventory by far. This website is used by a lot of the dealers in San José and Grecia and was our source to compare prices and models, in other words, to find out the going rate. Encuentra24.com was also a good resource. This website is the classifieds’ page for one of Costa Rica’s larger newspapers and a lot of non-dealers post cars here. Lastly, we constantly had our eyes open. It’s not uncommon to see a “se vende” sign hanging in the window of a passing or parked car. We even waved down a few to ask the price. 

What We Were Looking for 

For us, a four-wheel drive SUV was essential. Many main roads in Costa Rica are nicely paved, but back roads, side streets, and driveways, like ours, can be treacherous and steep. Pair that with the unpredictable rainy season and its widespread flooding and we definitely wanted something high off the ground with good traction. Our modest budget had us looking for a compact SUV around model year 2000. That may sound old—it is old—but here in Costa Rica even a 13-year-old car is expensive. We also wanted something commonly found in Costa Rica for ease of parts availability. Lastly, we wanted something good on gas, preferably a four-cylinder or efficient diesel. 

These criteria had us looking at only a handful of models: the Toyota RAV 4, Suzuki Vitara, Chevy Tracker, Daihatsu Terios, Hyundai Galloper, and Honda CRV.

Rough dirt road in Costa Rica photo
A typical muddy, bumpy road in Costa Rica

How the Process Works

With our search narrowed, we needed to make sure we understood the process so that we’d be ready to buy when the time came. A good deal doesn’t last long as we found by emailing back and forth with a few owners. Again with some help from the locals and more research, we started to understand the process. Here’s how it works:

1)      Find a car.

2)      Make sure the Marchamo (registration & mandatory liability insurance) and Riteve (inspection) are current. Both stickers are located on the windshield. The month that the Riteve is due coincides with the last number of the license plate, 1 is January and so on. The Marchamo is paid annually between November 1 and December 31.   

3)      Bring the car to a mechanic to get it checked out (one you choose). Cars in Costa Rica face very rough conditions so a thorough inspection is important.

4)      Negotiate a price with the seller. 

5)      Complete the transaction with a notary public or lawyer (again, one you choose, who speaks your native language). A notary public/lawyer is required by law for valid title transfer. They write the bill of sale, search the government database to make sure there are no liens or fines on the car from the previous owner, and send the paperwork to San José to get you a new title.

How It Worked for Us

After about a month of looking but with very few options materializing in our local area, we decided that we needed to rent a car and drive somewhere with more options. Luckily an English-speaking mechanic was recommended to us in the nearby city of San Isidro. After a few phone conversations, we decided that he would be a great resource. He could check out a car before we purchased it and even offered to call around to see if anyone he knew was selling. San Isidro also was a good starting point for our on-the-ground search because it has a number of used car lots. And with more people driving around, we thought maybe we’d even get lucky with a private sale.

With the mobility of our rental car, we suddenly had a handful of prospects. The first option we considered was a 1998 Suzuki Sidekick, a slightly older model than we were hoping for but affordable. We test-drove it over to our trusty mechanic to get his opinion, but the concerned look on his face said it all. Many parts on the dashboard had been altered and he just didn’t seem to like it. He told us to return that car and come back to his shop.

When we returned, the mechanic had a similar car, a 2000 Chevy Tracker, in his lot. He explained that he had worked on this car for a friend and that it was in much better condition. We told him about a Toyota RAV4 we were considering at one of the dealerships, but he said that for steep hill climbs (like our driveway), he preferred the four-by-four system of the Tracker because of its low-range gear. We test-drove the Tracker and did notice a much smoother ride from the Sidekick. It was now late afternoon and we had to decide based on a ten-minute ride around town if we should buy this car today or come back in the morning for another exhausting day. We decided to trust our mechanic and go for it.

Now we needed an abogado (a lawyer). We had written down the names of a few in town who advertised that they spoke English but were unable to get in contact with any of them. With lawyer offices closing soon, we asked the mechanic for help, now putting our complete trust in him. He made some calls, then some more calls, sent a few text messages, and finally tracked down an available lawyer nearby. Within minutes, we were off. Our mechanic even came along too.

The process with the lawyer was simple. She spent about a half-hour searching the government database for information on the car and filled out paperwork while we sat and chatted with the mechanic and owner of the car. When she was finished with the bill of sale, she carefully explained it to us in English and answered our questions. We listened as she went through the title search, explained how the license plates stayed with the car when it changes owners, and how the annual Marchamo is calculated (based on the government-assigned value, not the sale price). We then signed the papers (all in Spanish) and handed over the money we’d been nervously carrying around all day to the seller. We were given a temporary document to hold while the official ones were processed in San José, told to come back in two weeks to get the papers, and handed the keys. In true Tico style, we all got into the car, mechanic and seller included, and dropped everyone off at their homes before riding off into the sunset. 

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We dub thee "Green Buggy"

Overall our car-buying experience in Costa Rica was filled with stress and anxiety. Not surprisingly, it was the locals who helped make the process somewhat bearable. Ticos don’t stress out about much and definitely wouldn’t lose sleep over the purchase of a car. We were extremely fortunate to get help from trustworthy people who were looking out for our best interests. Now that we have a set of wheels, we get to experience all of the other joys that come along with car ownership: maintenance, high gas prices, additional insurance, roadside hazards, and those crazy drivers who pass on curves. We’ll be sure to keep you posted as the wheels turn.

Additional Resources

http://news.co.cr/importing-cars-costa-rica/2644/
http://adullroar.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-cost-of-owning-and-driving-car-in.html
http://www.welovecostarica.com/public/903.cfm
http://wheelscr.com/2011/costa-rica-auto-insurance-and-coverages/

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Do you have a car in Costa Rica? We’d love to hear how the process went for you and if you have any tips for people in the market right now. Leave us a comment below.   


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Jennifer Turnbull and Matthew Houde first visited Costa Rica about ten years ago. They fell in love with the country’s friendly culture and natural beauty and returned for vacation year after year. In 2012, they published a book about their travels, Two Weeks in Costa Rica. Most recently, they took the ultimate plunge and left their successful jobs in the United States for a chance to experience the pura vida lifestyle. They now write full-time from Costa Rica. Follow their adventures on their blog or via Twitter and Facebook.


Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde
 


Comments

10/10/2013 17:04

Thanks for writing this account of your experience. We are carless and doing ok on the bus but there are always those occasions where I just want a car. I imagine we will be purchasing one sometime. This article helps know what to expect. Keep up the good work.

Greg

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10/11/2013 18:52

Thanks for reading, Greg. Glad you found the post useful. When we were researching the process, the information on the Internet was spotty so we thought it might help others to share our experience. Props to you guys for still being car-free. If you ever take the plunge and have questions, you know who to ask.

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10/10/2013 17:09

Great informative post on buying a car. We have decided to NOT buy a car for now, and we are working well with the bus system here in Grecia (but you're right - it DOES take all day to go into town and do simple errands). Finding trust-worthy people here makes it so much easier, am glad you found some to help you. And your car looks fabulous! :)

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10/11/2013 19:01

Thanks Jen. Glad that the bus system is working out for you guys. We would have been much more likely not to get a car if we lived closer to San Jose like you but the buses only run a couple of times a day down here, which makes it tough. We do take the bus when it's convenient though since gas is pretty expensive and always for long trips. Thanks for reading!

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Christine
10/12/2013 13:31

Hi Jenn and Matt
Thank you so much for this post, it is extremely helpful. My husband and I are moving to Uvita next year (if all goes as planned) and we were just discussing the car buying process because as you mentioned you really need a car in that area and we have heard some horror stories. We are going to be down there in a couple of weeks and we would love to get together
To pick your brain on the whole moving process as it is a bit overwhelming. Let us know. In the meantime enjoy your new car. It looks great by the way.

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10/12/2013 21:12

Hi Christine, you're very welcome, glad you found the post helpful. We'd be happy to meet up with you and your husband when you come down. Just shoot us a message via our Contact page and we can figure out the details via email. Congrats on deciding to make the move, can't wait to hear all about it!

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10/16/2013 16:35

Nice overview of the process. Perhaps you will do a follow-up a year from now to discuss maintenance. There are a large number of Mitsubishi SUVs of various sizes here, too, which are very rugged and easy to find parts for.

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10/17/2013 15:26

Thanks Casey. A follow up on maintenance is a great idea. I actually remember reading a related post on your blog a while back that we found really helpful- that's why we brought along some tools to CR for basic repairs. Good tip on the Mitsubishis- we looked at some Monteros too. You do see them everywhere here.

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10/21/2013 18:48

Oh man buying a car here is so not easy. Without even talking about prices, just the whole process... even for a Costa Rican. We've been looking into getting a new car for awhile and we use crautos.com but we haven't' found one yet. Plus Riteve has been a nightmare for us. It's like a full body physical for your car! Glad to hear you guys were able to get one though! It is nice to have a car here

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10/21/2013 20:34

Samantha, nice to know it's not just us! Thanks for the heads up on Riteve. Now we have that to look forward to...wonder how our 13 year old buggy will fare. Only time will tell. Good luck finding a new car!

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Mike and Jennie
11/02/2013 10:29

Thanks so much for this. My husband is moving to Costa Rica in January and he will need a car. He is reopening an Ecolodge near Santa Maria de Dota. It's 7500 feet above sea level in a cloud forest. Got to have a 4 x 4! Your post was very helpful in getting us started.

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11/02/2013 16:33

Mike and Jennie, glad to help. Exciting news that you're reopening an ecolodge. We aren't too far from Santa Maria de Dota; you'll have to let us know when you're ready for guests so we can come check it out. Best of luck with the move!

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11/21/2013 20:42

Hi,
We realized that you guys were in the exact same boat we find ourselves in. We do however find that we are needing to find a car quicker. Renting is very draining on the pocketbook! We're looking at finding a car within a week. What we need to know are what are the expenses after giving the seller his cash? Taxes? Insurance? Lawyer? Mechanic? Any help with these questions would be greatly appreciated. And yes you guys did get a good looking car! Enjoy.

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Jenn & Matt
11/22/2013 14:40

Hi Guy and Ros,
Good luck with the car search! Here is some answers that will hopefully shed some more light.

In general, use the websites we listed above to narrow down what models your interested and their price range. That way you will know if the price is out of line. We paid pretty much the average price for our buggy. We saw the same make and model for more and for less.

The Marchamo (taxes and mandatory insurance) are paid each year between November and Dec 31 so you will need to check if it has been paid yet since we are well into November now. The price for this will depend on the gov. calculated value of the car not the sale price. You should be able to look at the registration papers in the glove box to get the previous amount paid (ours ran about $200/yr).

Additional Insurance- You don't have to but you can buy more insurance later through INS or another company. We upgraded our liability insurance for about $130/6months. This depends on what coverage you choose, full coverage, roadside assistance, etc. would be much more.

Depending on the mechanic, they may or may not charge, ours did not but we gave him a tip.

The Lawyer or Notary fee will vary depending on who you use (I'm guessing $300-500 is about the range). Sometimes the seller will split this cost with you if you negotiate it that way but make sure you go to someone you feel comfortable with.

Hope this info helps, let us know what you end up with. A green buggy twin perhaps?

Pura Vida,

-Matt & Jenn

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11/28/2013 22:00

Nice to get a ride in your famous car!

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12/03/2013 20:18

Haha, glad you liked it, Lauren!

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Monica Cocker
01/02/2014 15:48

Thanks for your tips. We have a RAV4 but are looking for something bigger. We live in Tres Rios OSA up a very steep hill and sometimes have to take two runs at it. what is the name of the mechanic you used in San Isidrio. Monica

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Celeste
01/15/2014 17:21

Hi! Is it possible to drive your own car down into CR without paying import fees? What if you are just planning an extended stay, but not permanent move (say 6 months-1 year).

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Jenn & Matt
01/16/2014 18:37

Hi Celeste,
We're not exactly sure about the details but we have seen a few cars around that have plates from the States. One thing to keep in mind is that your drivers license is only good for 90 days and needs to be renewed with your tourist Visa. Not sure if a car with US plates would also need to pass over the border to re-new it's eligibility here. Another thing is that if you were pulled over at any time, they may see how long you have been in the country and try to make you register it here, thus paying all the taxes anyway. Hope that helps. Pura Vida and good luck with the drive down.

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Celeste
01/22/2014 16:13

Thanks! We are coming down hopefully in April/May to check things out. Then we will have a better idea about how best to do it.

When you shift other city and buy a car you will keep in our mind that you must buy a car according to their road. If you shift in Mountainous areas you must buy an SUV because you need more power. Matt & Jenn I appreciate your work. I am also shifting next week and Buy SUV.

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01/20/2014 19:58

I heard the tax rate dropped to 30%. True?

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01/21/2014 16:48

Michael, we hadn't heard that but just came across an article (http://costarica-connection.com/costa-rica-deceases-used-car-import-tax/) that seems to suggest that the rates did go down last Aug. to 30% for cars up to 6 years old and 40-48% for cars 7+. Not sure how reliable the article is since the prior tax rates provided go against everything we've ever seen. Like many things in Costa Rica, this might be a mystery you can unravel only if you've gone through it yourself!

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02/19/2014 17:09

Great story. Thanks for sharing.
I am planning to buy a car and build it to a expeditioncar to make a 1-year+ journey trough middle, north, back to middle and South America.

So every info is more then welcome.
Thanks.

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Jenn & Matt
02/20/2014 10:41

Patrick, that sounds like quite an adventure. Best of luck! - Jenn & Matt

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Robin
02/23/2014 19:56

Hi Jenn and Matt!

I love your blog and your stories have made our decision to move to Costa Rica a lot less scary! We will be purchasing a vehicle when we arrive, something likely very similar to the green buggy, and I'm having a hard time finding any information on how much tax is charged on used vehicles purchased in Costa Rica. What kind of tax did you pay on the green buggy?

Thanks for your help :-)

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Jenn & Matt
02/24/2014 10:06

Hi Robin, glad our blog is making you feel better about your move. Congrats, by the way!

For used cars purchased in Costa Rica, you don't pay taxes at the time of purchase but instead pay them as part of your annual Marcharmo (annual registration that includes a small amount of liability insurance). Marchamo is due by the end of the year. Ours for 2013 wasn't too bad, I think around $200.

One other thing you might think about doing is joining some of the expat Facebook groups for the area of Costa Rica you're moving to. People sometimes post vehicles for sale on there, and sometimes you can get a good deal if someone needs to leave the country ASAP. Good luck with the move!

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03/17/2014 09:08

Hi Matt and Jenn!

Thanks for sharing this experience. Moving to Escazu with my wife and kids in 2 weeks. Of all of our planning, etc to make this happen, getting a car has been the "stress" most in my mind. This is very helpful in walking the through the process! I think we'll rent for a month, regardless of the expense. It seems rushing things is not the best approach. Thanks again, just subscribed! :)

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Jenn & Matt
03/18/2014 10:52

Hi Noel,

Glad you found the blog helpful and thanks for subscribing! Getting a car is definitely one of the more stressful tasks ahead of you but once it's done, it's done. You will have a much easier time finding something near Escazu, with all of the car dealers in that area. Best of luck with the move!

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