Buying a car in Costa Rica: Points to Consider

It’s said that there are two kinds of people living in Costa Rica; Those that have a car, and those that are going to be late.  The difference between the two is so great that car ownership in Costa Rica is practically a must.  Thought the bus system and privately run mass transit is cheap and reliable, there is no better way to get around the jungle (concrete and non) than a good set of wheels.  Costa Rica itself is a small country geographically, but large in the sense that it can be tedious to navigate without your own personal means.  So the question begging to be answered is: How do I go about buying a car in Costa Rica?

To examine this matter you need to first take into consideration the taxes levied on vehicles in the land of Pura Vida.  Costa Rica has, by far, the highest vehicle taxes in the region.  With import duties coming in from 45% to 70% of the retail value of a car, even a low-end Hyundai can run you upwards of $26,000 off the lot.  Considering that you will be subjected to this import duty whether you plan to bring your own car in or buy local, there is no clear way around closing your eyes, reaching into your wallet, and just getting it over with.  That said, car ownership in Costa Rica is high amongst locals and there are easy ways to make this a reality.  Let’s look at three ways people in Costa Rica go about car ownership.

IMPORT A CAR:  On the surface, the idea of avoiding high dealership prices in Costa Rica by scoring a good deal back home and shipping seems to make sense.  Heck, having your car shipped from home since you’ve already paid for it would make even more.  Hang on there, partner.  Let’s not forget the import duties.  These prices are determined on the retail value of the vehicle as determined by the book price as set by Costa Rica Customs.  This is not the Blue Book value, the value as stated on your bill of sale, or any other recognized means of valuation.  These prices are purely Costa Rican and are often obscene.  On a $25,000 used car you can expect to pay upwards of $17,000 in import duties alone.  This is not considering the cost of shipping to the port in the Caribbean of Limon, where you are expected to pick it up yourself.  Once you get your car in hand, you’re done, right?  Not so fast.  Now it’s time to have your car inspected, pay your Marchamo (annual vehicular permit), and get it insured.  We’ll leave the exorbitantly high price of gasoline for when you’ve healed from these initial financial blows.  All told, unless you really love that car from home and have done enough research to ensure that it wouldn’t simply be better to buy one here, many do take this route.  However, be well informed and prepared as there can be any number of costly surprises along the way –especially if you get into a little fender-bender and realize that you need to import parts.

BUY USED:  Like anywhere in the world, there’s an expression that says buying a used car is just buying someone else’s problems.  Not to go into the risks of used car purchases as they are well-known, the global advice still applies.  Buying a used car in Costa Rica starts with knowing a good mechanic.  Having someone that you know and trust to inspect a car for you will save you perhaps thousands of dollars and countless hours upon hours of headaches down the road.  Many used cars are very reasonably priced here.  However, be forewarned that cars tend to retain their value much longer than in the United States, and therefore are more expensive than what you’d normally drive off a used lot back home.  That said, many cars are well-maintained and tend to get more miles than in neighboring countries.  One piece of advice is to take careful note of what make and model vehicle you see the most of on the road.  Remembering that import duties are high on many items, including car parts, it is wise to avoid buying that obscure model from Europe because it has sexy lines, loads of cachet, and is a rare little find.  That rare little find will be a nightmare to repair down the road when you start looking for not only a mechanic who knows what the heck it is, but then has to special order parts from the far reaches of the earth.  There are a lot of Hyundai, Nissan, and Toyota for a reason.  Parts are readily available in many shops, and mechanics know exactly how to fix them.  Riding to the upper end of the scale, Porsche, BMW, Audio, and Land Rover are very popular and are to be found everywhere.  At the high end of the used car scale the same rule applies; if there are lots of them, there are lots of parts and mechanics who know how to fix and maintain them.

BUY NEW:  When it’s all said and done, many opt for the easiest route and simply buy new.  Buying a new car in Costa Rica is a relatively painless operation as you know exactly what you’re getting into and you are driving a warrantied, quality car off the lot.  In many cases the deal hunters in Costa Rica are quickly discouraged and end up spending more money in the long run than if they had just bitten the bullet and bought new.  Depending on your budget, climbing behind the wheel of a car fresh out of the factory can bring a great sense of long-term security in your purchase and ease any worries of the mysteries that can come with used car ownership in Central America.  Once you swallow the fact that the dealer price will be at least 30% above U.S. prices, and that security laws are more lax leading to less standard features, you can get yourself behind the wheel of a very good car that’s been shipped here stripped to the bare bones to make it affordable for the locals.  These are often your best bet for “off the lot” pricing.  Ordering in your extra features, a particular paint preference, and all leather with GPS will, of course, run a pretty penny.  This is a small market and there is often only one official, authorized dealer of any brand.  Be sure you look into buying from well-established, reputable dealers.  It is also wise to research the secondary market value of your make and model should you have to sell or trade up in the coming years.

There is no easy answer here.  It is by no means an understatement to say that knowledge is power in these matters.  If you are unsure about the value of your car before shipping it to Costa Rica, your moving company will be able to provide you with all the details and costs surrounding your import.  When looking to score a great used deal in Costa Rica, start with a trusted source who has his hands dirty in the car market everyday by hunting out a great mechanic to inspect your choices.  If buying new and just going for the gusto is your style, then the best advice is to contact a respected dealer who knows the ‘ins and outs’ of purchasing a car in Costa Rica.  Dealers such as Costa Rica Autos are experts in these matters and specialize in putting drivers with only the most discerning taste behind some of the finest automobiles available in Costa Rica.  From Hyundai to Hummer, Beetles to Beamers, Costa Rica sports a wide variety of cars to satisfy any driver.  No matter what your style, be sure to know before you go.