Last Updated: December 19, 2020
When we moved to Costa Rica in July 2013, 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 simple, just bring our own car from the United States or buy one when we arrived. We soon discovered, though, that like many things in Costa Rica, it wouldn’t be that easy. In this post, we share our experience buying a car in Costa Rica (our first one). We’ve since gone through this process two more times and will give some of those details as well.
Our Options: Ship or Buy
For us, we really had two options. The first was to keep the car we had in the United States and ship it to Costa Rica. The other was to sell our old car and use the money to buy something different once we moved.
Shipping a Car to Costa Rica
Shipping didn’t seem like a viable option for us. This was mostly 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.
Shipping also would have been a hassle because of the customs’ process. We had heard from others who went through it that their car was held for a while in San Jose and it took them many trips to the city and extra paperwork to get it released.
Buying a Car in Costa Rica
With shipping out of the question, we moved on to option two. Buying once 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 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 can be a lot easier because there are more routes that run regularly. In more remote areas, though, like the Southern Zone where we lived, buses were infrequent and there wasn’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
To be honest, we were really nervous to buy a car from a car dealership. In our extensive research, we had read some horror stories about unscrupulous used car dealers. Not that they are all bad but some people definitely had had bad experiences.
One example we had heard was that the odometer had been turned back. For someone else, 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.
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 we asked a few locals where they look. We got two different responses: 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 (which has a lot of dealerships). It ended up being our source to compare prices and models. In other words, to find out the going rate.
Encuentra24 also was 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.
We also found Facebook groups to be a good source to connect with locals who were moving away or selling because of an upgrade. Facebook Marketplace came later, but is also great resource.
Lastly, we constantly had our eyes open around town. 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.
Sometimes there are also cars parked in front of gas stations or businesses that are for sale.
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. [Read more about driving in Costa Rica here.]
Pair that with the unpredictable rainy season and its occasional flooding, and we definitely wanted something high off the ground with good traction.
Our modest budget of around $8,000-$10,000 had us looking for a compact SUV around 10 to 15-years old. That may sound old (it is old), but here in Costa Rica even a 15-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 at the time had us looking at only a handful of models: Toyota RAV 4, Suzuki Vitara, Chevy Tracker, Daihatsu Terios, Hyundai Galloper, and Honda CRV.
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 are the steps you should take once you find a car.
Marchamo & Riteve
The first thing to do is make sure that the Marchamo (registration & mandatory liability insurance) and Riteve (vehicle safety inspection) are current.
Both stickers are located on the windshield. The Marchamo is paid annually between November 1 and December 31. The month that the Riteve is due coincides with the last number of the license plate. One is January and so on.
For more on the Riteve process, check out our post Riteve: Costa Rica’s Annual Vehicle Inspection.
Inspection by Mechanic
In our opinion, especially with older cars, it is a good idea to have a mechanic check out the car. Cars in Costa Rica face very rough conditions so a thorough inspection is important.
Negotiate a Price with the Seller
This can be a little tough sometimes, especially with a language barrier. But most locals (especially Ticos) are open to some negotiation on the asking price. If they aren’t, they will tell you right away that the price is firm.
Use a Notary Public or Lawyer
Once you’ve agreed with the seller, you’ll need to complete the transaction with a notary public or attorney (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 and search the government database to make sure there are no liens or fines on the car from the previous owner. Usually the buyer pays for this service, but it can sometimes be split between the buyer and seller. The lawyer’s fee is set by the government based on the value of the car.
One you sign, they will send the paperwork to San José to get you a new title in your name.
How It Worked for Us
After about a month of looking 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 de El General (Perez Zeledon). 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 several used car lots. This wasn’t our first choice of course, but we felt a little better about it with the mechanic to help us. Also with more people driving around, we thought maybe we’d even get lucky with a private sale.
Car Options and Decision Time
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 (15 years old at the time) 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 the 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 that we had decided on a car, 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, sent a few text messages, and finally tracked down an available lawyer nearby. Within minutes, we were off. Our mechanic 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 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. We were given a temporary document to hold while the official ones were processed in San José. She then told to come back in two weeks to get the papers and handed us 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.
Our First (Foreign) Car Buying Experience
Overall, our first 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.
Our Second and Third Car Buying Experience
With a growing family and a slew of problems with the aging Green Buggy, we decided to sell her in 2018 after almost 5 years of great road-trips around Costa Rica.
We think it was actually a trip to San Jose where, after changing the spark plugs in a roadside parking lot, we still had almost no engine power. We chugged home (4 hours) with a toddler in the car seat behind us and decided it was time for an upgrade.
Buying from a Rental Car Company
Our next car-buying experience was another private sale. This time, we purchased from a car rental company. We actually work with this rental company through our own travel business, so are very familiar with the quality of their cars. They replace their fleet when cars get to be about three years old and sell off the older models. They also have a rigorous maintenance program so that made us feel fairly at ease about buying a former rental.
The model we got was just three years old at the time. It was a 2015 Hyundai Tucson 4×4, and it also treated us well. Since it was much newer, we had few problems with it. Mostly routine maintenance like brakes or oil changes and a couple slightly more serious fixes like a wheel bearing that happened after we put our own wear and tear on the car.
The buying process through the rental car agency was similar to our first car purchase.
This time we were given the available car options by email and then went to look at the cars we were interested in at their facility in San Jose. We got to speak with the fleet manager, who is in charge of maintenance and car care.
Once we decided on a car, we needed to make an international bank transfer and wait for it to clear. When it did, we met with the lawyer and owner to sign the paperwork and get the keys.
Buying New from the Dealership
Most recently, we upgraded again and purchased a brand new car from a car dealership in Santa Ana (near San Jose).
The reason for the upgrade seems a little silly, but the 2015 Tucson we bought a few years before didn’t have the proper car-seat anchors for our oldest son’s new car seat (forward facing). We could use the car’s seatbelts to install his seat prior but he had grown into a larger seat that was safer with the anchors. We looked into getting a new back seat or having it retrofitted, but it would have cost a lot without adding much value to the car. Ultimately, we decided a new car would be best for our family.
The process of buying a new car was the smoothest of all. Prices aren’t too negotiable for new cars, but the dealerships do have promotions. We when we purchased ours, there was a promo going on, which saved us about $3,000.
Since we really liked the 2015 Hyundai Tucson, we decided to stay with that model and get a 2020 Tucson. On a trip to San Jose, we went to the Hyundai dealership and a sales representative showed us the different options. The color we wanted wasn’t available there, but they had one waiting to get released from customs.
For this car purchase, we were able to put down a deposit with our credit card for a couple of thousand dollars. This made it possible for them to release the car from customs and get it ready for us.
When buying a new car, the Marchamo and Riteve (see above) is taken care of by the dealership and included in the price. They also get the license plates for you.
It took about one week after we made the deposit for the car to be released. In the meantime, we were required to make the remaining payment.
When we picked up the car, the license plates, Marchamo, and Riteve were not ready yet, but they gave us a temporary paper to display in the window. About two weeks later, everything was all set and they delivered the plates and stickers to our house by messenger.
Looking back, buying a car was definitely the most stressful for us the first time. But the Green Buggy was our baby and brought us all around Costa Rica, so we wouldn’t change a thing. Like everything, the second and third experiences went a lot smoother.
We hope this post will help you with your own first car buying experience in Costa Rica, whether it’s an older model like our first car or something newer like our second or third. Most of all, we hope we’ve made the process a little more clear and less scary.
Last Updated: December 19, 2020
CR Government’s Vehicle Import Tax Calculator – Use this page to get the import tax amount that will be due for the car you plan to ship to Costa Rica.
The Cost of Owning a Car in Costa Rica – Here’s our report on the cost of maintenance and repair during our first year of used car ownership.
The Pros and Cons of Importing a Car into Costa Rica – This is an older article but still has good information and things to think about when importing a car.
What’s Our Story . . . ?
In July 2013, we boarded a plane for a new life in Costa Rica. Want to follow our story as it happened? Check out the posts below to see how our dream became a reality and what it has been like so far.
- We’re Moving to Costa Rica!
- First Impressions on Living in Costa Rica
- Living in Costa Rica: One Month Update
- Fun Facts from Our First Six Months in Costa Rica
- Our First Year in Costa Rica
- House Sitting: How to Live in Costa Rica for $2,000 a Year
- Two Years in Costa Rica: How Life Has Changed
- Having a Baby in Costa Rica
- Applying for Residency in Costa Rica Without a Lawyer
- Three-Year Update
- Four Years in Costa Rica: Settling Into the Every Day
- Living in Costa Rica: Five Years Strong
- Moving to Costa Rica: 7 Years Abroad