It’s not uncommon for me to get this kind of inquiry and I’m always glad to have a chance to really explain. All too often people get me to quote the costs to nationalize a car here – pay the duty and all the other costs associated with getting it fully legal and licensed to drive here – and they just quietly freak out and disappear without ever bothering to get the full story (although goodness knows I try to give it to them right upfront!)
The problem isn’t just that “it costs a lot” to bring their car here. The problem is also that they see cars advertised for less and think, “Why would any sane person pay so much to bring their car when they could buy one here and save money?”
Ahhh, good question!
There are two main “kinds” of low-priced cars here in Costa Rica and I can say a bit about each one that might lessen the confusion.
First, let’s talk about those cars you sometimes see listed in ads for prices that seem too good to be true. There’s at least one website that has cars advertised for a tiny fraction of their expected price. Recently they had a new BMW X5 for $11,500; a 2008 Silverado for under $10,000; and a 2008 Ford Explorer for around $10,000.
I will confess that it’s hard to know exactly what these are. But I can say pretty strongly that these are NOT in any way shape or form, “real” prices for those cars. When I looked at one I thought it might actually just be a mistake, a typo or something, but not for so many (unless they’ve got someone REALLY bad doing their data entry for their site!) so now you’re left with the options that they’re… what? What’s even possible?
Stolen? Notice they don’t list a VIN. So, maybe stolen, although the advertising seems a little “too public” for that. More likely, it’s some kind of “bait and switch.” This is a classic example of “when it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.” Just using that ’08 Explorer as an example: the government database gives that car a local value nearly five times the price listed. The taxes alone would have been more than $16,000 if paid recently – how likely is it that someone is legitimately selling the car for so much less than even the import taxes?
Speaking of taxes, that’s one possible explanation: that they’ve been recently imported and don’t yet have the taxes paid, which would, indeed, essentially just be a form of “bait and switch” but even that’s not reasonable since the price listed in the ad is too low to even realistically cover having purchased the car in the states. Something’s certainly fishy there, without a doubt.
None of the cars advertised with these crazy-low prices indicate that they have their RTV stickers. Hard to understand why any car properly imported, with taxes paid and ready to go wouldn’t have had its safety inspection (RTV) so that’s another “red flag.”
So, while I can’t explain it, I can say with absolute certainty that it is NOT possible to buy and legally register one of these cars for that price. I defy anyone to prove otherwise.
Okay, so now let’s talk about the “real” cheap cars you see advertised here. You know the ones, they seem cheap for what they are, but aren’t crazy, impossible cheap like the ones we were just talking about.
Here’s the deal on those — if you go to the docks in Limon, you will see THOUSANDS (literally) of junked cars being imported into the country. These are insurance write-offs in the states that were bought as junkers for practically nothing by the importers — unable to be legally titled in the states.
They ship them for practically nothing. Since they’re already crunched up, no problem cramming them 4 and even 6 to a container. A car is 14′ to 19′ long, a container is 40′ long, you do the math! Then they fix them up cheaply here. So, now you’ve got a car with a shiny new paint job, it runs (for now, at least), the odometer’s been rolled back by 50- or 100,000 miles, and you put it out on the used car lot. You can sell it for thousands less than a legitimate version of the same car and still make a good profit.
And there’s always a market here for cheap cars — for many Ticos, these pieces of trash are all they can afford. And for many gringos, after they find out how much it costs to import their own [decent] car, they think that these cars sound like a good deal. So if you have no scruples it’s a great business to be in, and lots of folks are!
Out of all those cars, there are probably a few that turn out to be okay — the body damage really was just superficial, there wasn’t any frame damage, it wasn’t in a flood, the mechanical stuff was well repaired, and even if the odometer lies, it’s still a fairly decent car for the price.
Unfortunately, this cheery scenario only applies to a tiny percentage of the cars. And how are you to know which ones?
The truth is that after a wreck substantial enough to be an insurance write-off, most cars are simply NEVER the same again, no matter how much shiny paint you spray on. At best it’s a damaged car with probably twice the stated mileage on it, at worst it’s dangerous and likely to cause you ongoing misery.
There are services here that profess to find you a good solid used car and I have no reason to disbelieve that at least some of those are good. We have a couple of friends here who have used one, for example, and been quite pleased. (Neither has actually owned their “new” car very long, though, so personally I’d say the jury is still out.) So it would be disingenuous of me to suggest it’s impossible to buy a decent car here. But the odds are NOT in your favor.
There some very good cars available in Costa Rica
Now, there IS the occasional bargain to be had when a gringo moves here, ships their good solid North American car, pays to nationalize it, and then goes back to the states, selling the car here before they go. Often these folks are what you’d call a “motivated seller” and are trying to just cut their losses.
So there might be the occasional good deal to be had there, but those are hard to “plan” around finding. (And a gringo selling a car because they’re moving back doesn’t automatically mean that *they* recently imported the car, so it still pays to ask a lot of questions.)
Okay, let’s go back to the opening “question” about why most folks tell you NOT to bring a car and we say it’s better TO bring one.
One, most folks who say not to bring their car brought theirs in and took it through the nationalizing process by themselves. This is lunacy and if that were your only choice, I would say not to import a car! No sane person wants to go through that alone. It’s a daunting process. We still run into challenges and thorny issues and we’ve processed hundreds of cars!
Secondly, many of them simply don’t KNOW what I described above about the reality of the used cars here, so they see cars sold here for less money than it took them to bring their car in and say “why go through the headache” and tell others not to import their car. It might be an innocent mistake on their part, but nonetheless it’s really bad advice. Potentially dangerous advice. You’ll do well to tell them thanks, and then “just say no.”
If you are thinking about moving to Costa Rica, moving out of Costa Rica, or importing a vehicle, get your free e-book from Shipping Costa Rica to help you obtain more information about the process. They are also very highly recommended as a company to use for your shipping needs.
The above article is from Scott Oliver’s We Love Costa Rica Website.