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Buying a second hand car in France
Susie Hughes discovers that it’s not quite as easy as it sounds!
After three years of driving back and forth to the South of France in my little UK car, I decided the time had come to buy a second-hand French car. Nothing special, a few years old, low mileage, just a suitable little run-around. Should cost me a couple of grand - or so I thought. I estimated that given the costs of over-night stays en route, ferry crossings, toll roads, not to mention the long drives, it would pay for itself in a couple of years. So at the end of May, I hopped on a plane to Perpignan with two thousand crisp Euros in my back pocket.
The plan was to visit a couple of ’car superstores’ the following day, take my pick from the acres of gleaming second-hand cars and choose a three/four year old model with about 50,000 kilometres on the clock with ’one previous careful owner’. Haggle the price down a bit for cash and be driving home my own left-hand drive car at lunch- time. Oh, how naive that all seems now. The second-hand car market is a very different animal in France than in the UK.
For anyone thinking of going down the same route as me, it’s important to manage your expectations. In general terms:
1. Expect to pay considerably more for a used car in the P-O;
2. Do not expect to find anything with less than 100,000 kilos on the clock;
3. Do not expect to find a wide choice - it is not a buyer’s market;
4. Expect your car to come with battle-scars;
5. Don’t expect any sort of lengthy warranty (if at all);
6. Prepare to devote three weeks of your life to the task;
7. Find a French speaker with a car to assist you in your task.
The second-hand car market in France is microscopic by comparison with the UK. The reasons seem unclear, but cars of about two or three years old just don’t come on the market in any significant numbers. Maybe the smaller number of corporate fleets means there is less of a turnaround, or maybe the French see a car as something for life (or at least until it’s been run into the ground) as opposed to a status symbol to be upgraded with each significant pay rise.
Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same. It’s a hard task ahead. During my three-week search, I spoke to several British people who’d been down the same road before me. One had given up and decided he had to invest in a new car. Another had decided it would be easier to return to the UK, buy a car there and drive it over. The latter is an option which should not be over- looked, as LHD cars in the UK can be bought for a snip - although you would still need to re-register it in France. The second-hand car market in France is roughly divided into two sections - private sales and dealers.
The preferred mode for private sales seems to be to stick an ’A Vendre’ notice in the car window with a phone number and, often, not much more information. This requires you to take one of two courses of action.
Firstly, go on long walks around villages, supermarket car parks and back- streets hunting down the ’A vendre’ notices. The second means that when you are travelling in someone else’s car, you must always have a pen and paper handy and be prepared to jump out at traffic lights, dash through the traffic, scribble down a phone number and get back in the car before the lights turn green. Or alternately, as we did on more than one occasion, drive round a round-about half a dozen times trying to write down the number of an ’A Vendre’ car parked on the grass verge near an inter-section, which seems a favourite marketing point.
I tried to call a few of these without success. Most of them were what I considered seriously over-priced for what was on offer. For example, I was quoted 4,000 Euros (non-negotiable) for a seven year old Fiat Punto. On another occasion, I went to view a car, which sounded promising. Only 2000 Euros, eight years only, low (100,000km) mileage. The seller told me that the car had belonged to his grandmother and she was no longer able to drive it for medical reasons. When I saw it, it was obvious that his grandmother had either been fulfilling her life-long ambition to become France’s next Formula One Champion or ’the medical reasons’ were failing eye-sight.
Another car, a sporty little Golf, was in much better condition, but 5000 Euros for a 10-year-old car seemed excessive. The same car is still on the market, four months later.
Websites provide another source of tracking down private cars for sale and there are quite a few offering a break-down of cars available by location. But again, the same problems of high price, high mileage, old age and no guarantees apply. Basically, you can hand over your thousands of Euros and if it breaks down in the first kilometre, you have little or no come-back - even if the advert does say ’CT bon’.
The CT (controle technique) is the French equivalent of an MOT, but is a two- year health-check rather than annually - and a lot can go wrong in two years. Any second hand car should come with a valid CT - even if it’s not road- worthy. In this case, you would still need a CT (non roulant) to validate the car and the purchase. Generally though, these CT (non roulant) are used when a car is being sold for its spare-part (pièces) value. A further opportunity is through the ‘small ads’ in the local press and freebie specialist magazines, but anything worth it’s salt will have been snapped up before the ink was dry on the presses. A useful magazine to have at hand is ‘L’Argus’, which includes the prices you should expect to pay for each type of car.
Deciding that ’caveat emptor’ was advisable, I decided that buying from a dealer was a safer option. New cars tend to be much more expensive in France than in the UK, so it’s not really surprising that this has a ripple effect to the second-hand market. Many of the dealership around Perpignan do a side-line in second-hand models, but these tend to be limited and at the top end of the price-scale.
At this point, I should say that I was aided and abetted in my quest by a French friend, Daniel, whose personal mission became to help me buy a car. Everyone should have a ‘Daniel’ when embarking on this exercise. Although my French is passable it does not extend to ‘Your carburettor sounds dodgy, mate’, nor does it compare to having someone who knows the rules of the game.
Having trawled a few show-rooms and found nothing of interest, we decided to reverse the approach. Stop looking for a car - and start looking for a dealer. A case of playing the man rather than the ball. With this in mind, Daniel set off to interview potential car dealers and found one which he considered honourable and trust-worthy - and knew what we wanted. They also informed us that the best time to buy a second-hand car was the first Saturday of the month when their ‘new used’ stock arrived. We’d been trying during the last two weeks of May, which might explain part of the problem. We ‘specced’ the car I wanted with our chosen dealership and asked them to contact us as soon as something suitable arrived.
Within a few days we had a call that they had found ‘my car’ - a 2002 Opal Corsa, 120km on the clock, around 3,000 Euros. One careful previous owner! It seemed the bargain of a life-time. And it was diesel. Buying a diesel rather than a petrol car seems a huge plus-point. I think that, given the high mileages on second-hand cars, it is generally deemed that a diesel car is more reliable in the autumn of its life.
Daniel gave me strict instructions as we went to see it. I was not to jump up- and-down with joy the moment I saw it. I was merely to nod in his direction if I liked it and leave the negotiating to him. Given that it was twice the age, had twice the mileage and was twice the price I’d anticipated three weeks earlier, I thought I could restrain myself. However, given everything else that we’d seen over the past three weeks, I could hardly contain my excitement.
After the agreed ‘little nod’, Daniel went into negotiation on issues I’m still not sure about and the deal was done. Then I whopped around the showroom. The guys at the garage were as good as their word. A week later it had a new CT, a few minor bumps had been sorted out - and it was mine. A point worth bearing in mind is you will receive strange looks if you try to negotiate a discount for cash, as there is a maximum limit of Euros 3,000 for cash transactions by consumers.
Unless your French-speaking, car-driving friend is also a qualified mechanic, it’s a good idea to get the car checked out independently. It is unlikely that any guarantee will be offered but a friendly bit of persuasion might enable you to take the car to another garage for it to have a quick once-over.
The next stage is to acquire a ‘carte grise’ - a sort of ‘log book’, which must be done within a month. The equivalent procedure in the UK would be to send the relevant forms of sale and purchase to the DVLC in Swansea. It’s not quite so straight forward. We had to go to the local town hall with a range of documents, including:
1. Bill of sale and purchase - transfer of ownership (the original!) This caused a bit of a problem as the only copy had my original signature on a photocopy of the vendors.
2. ‘Old’ carte grise, which you will have received from the vendor.
3. Proof of ID - ie passport.
4. Proof of residency ie a utility bill.
5. Valid CT.
6. Driving licence.
7. Cheque book.
The payment for a carte grise is a one-off and is based on the horse-power of your car. Mine was a four CV which equated to about 150 Euros. About ten days later and several phone calls to the town hall, I was able to go and collect my carte grise and was now officially an owner-driver of a French car. The car will, of course, need to be insured. This is a case of shopping around for the best quote to suit your needs. In my case, this turned out to be a Perpignan-based mutual who offer fully-comp with road-side assistance for about 300 Euros. And they took my UK no-claims bonus into account.
An alternative to buying a second-hand car in France is to bring your UK car here and re-register it. This is a bit of a bureaucratic process but only needs doing once - and should be done by anyone resident in France. Although some people choose to keep on GB plates longer than the legal system permits, it is ill-advised to push the boundaries. You need to prove your GB car meets the legal requirements to be driven on French roads and registered under the French system.
There is no import tax to pay on your car if it is for personal use. You will need to take the car’s original registration documents and receipt of sale - to prove you have already paid the VAT - to the Centre des Impots, who will issue a certificate providing no import duty is payable.
You will need a certificate of conformity from your UK manufacturer or dealer to prove the car conforms to required standards in France. This in itself shouldn’t be a problem, but in the case of a friend of mine, the certificate, for use abroad was only available in English, which didn’t please the people at the town hall. Also, his certificate of conformity didn’t give the horse-power which proved to be a stumbling block later in the procedure.
You need a valid CT (controle technique), the two-yearly equivalent of an MOT certificate for cars over four years old. There are registered garages, Servitest centres, who carry out these checks, but not the repairs required. A ‘fail’ gives you a two-month breathing space to put everything in order. One problem we encountered was the headlights. A UK-driven car will have its headlights pointing in the wrong direction. These need to be corrected - and a set of beam-benders might be OK for a two-week tourist holiday but will not get you through a CT.
All documents collected - and the usual proof of ID, residency, driving licence, etc - it’s off to the town hall to go through the same process for registering a French card and collecting the new carte grise. As the fee for this process is based on the horse power of the car, you will need something which shows this. As this isn’t always on the certificate of conformity, it may require a trip to a local dealership for an ‘official letter’ stating its CV.
Three months down the line my little Opal Corse is still going strong. Maybe I was one of the lucky ones, I’ve certainly heard several horror stories of second-hand car purchases which have ended in disaster at a high price.
As with any significant purchase, you need to do your homework, be patient, be prepared for the worst and avoid it before it happens.
L’année – the year
Le kilométrage – the mileage
Une voiture neuf / d’occasion – a new/second-hand car
Un monospace – a people-carrier
un break – an estate car
Un quatre quatre – a four-wheel drive
Un cabriolet – a convertible
La puissance fiscale – engine rating
La climatisation – air conditioning
Un toît ouvrant – a sunroof
Before buying, check that the vehicle….
- has a contrôle technique (CT) certificate, if applicable.
- hasn’t been involved in a major accident. If in doubt, ask for a ‘déclaration sans accident/non-accidenté’ in writing.
- is not under hire purchase ( certificat de non-gage).
- comes with a ‘certificat de non-opposition’ confirming that the vendor agrees to sell you the car (i.e. you aren’t stealing it!).
Buy ‘L’Argus’ car magazine at any newsagent. It updates its prices every six months and is used by the motor trade for calculating car values, insurance premiums and claims. La Centrale is another good mag for defining 2nd hand car prices car. Online, visit www.argusauto.com or www.321auto.com.
It is up to the seller to provide the buyer with the necessary paperwork. They can download forms from the internet at www.equipement.gouv.fr/formulaires or pick them up at the Prefecture. Without these documents, you will be unable to apply for a new carte grise from the préfecture, without which you will not be considered the legal owner of the vehicle.