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Buying a Car in Costa Rica: 6 Things to Know and 6 Mistakes to Avoid

buying a car in Costa Rica title photo

If you’re thinking about buying a car in Costa Rica, you’ve already come across some of the common questions: Why are vehicles so expensive? Should you take that screaming deal you found online? Will your purchase include a good warranty? Etcetera, etcetera. 

Luckily buying cars is something I know a thing (or twenty) about. You could say I have ample experience, both in buying for myself and in helping others! So, let’s talk about a few of the common need-to-knows and pitfalls to buying a car in Costa Rica:

Know This: Brand Matters (but not for THAT reason)

buying a car in Costa Rica brand matters

As soon as you begin perusing vehicle prices, you’ll notice that certain brands/makes are more expensive. (Ask the seller, and you’re more likely to hear that these brands better “retain their value.” Potatoes, potahtoes.)

Anyway, it boils down to the truth that certain vehicle makes are more expensive in Costa Rica. Typically, Toyota is the priciest non-luxury brand, followed by Hyundai, Nissan, Suzuki, Mitsubishi, and Honda

Without going into a long diatribe, it essentially comes down to supply and demand: The more widely available a vehicle, the easier it is to find parts and a mechanic familiar with the make and model. And that’s a commodity in Costa Rica. 

Avoid This: Hard-to-Find Brand Parts

Whatever you do and no matter how great the deal, do not buy a make or model that is uncommon in Costa Rica. (Ask me or your favorite mechanic, and we’ll point you in the right direction!)

Even if the purchase price is thousands less than the next option, you’ll find that these savings are soon swallowed up by the first big issue. Some makes and models are so uncommon that it can take months to locate replacement parts – months that you’ll be stuck renting an expensive replacement vehicle or taking taxis/public transport. Others are uncommon and/or luxury brands that you can only get serviced at very specific, specialized (and pricey) mechanics or service centers.

car parts in Costa Rica

Know This: Prices Are Higher Than You Anticipate

When it comes to buying a car in Costa Rica, it’s important to know that nationalized vehicles are subject to high import taxes and upkeep that can create a bit of sticker shock: That vehicle that you have your eye on? It can easily cost 1.5x to 3.0x what you’d expect to pay in the U.S. (as a common example).

For example, a quick perusal of crautos.com (a very popular car listing site in Costa Rica) reveals that, as of November 2022, a 2008 Toyota RAV4 costs about $11,500; a 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe does go below $31,000; and an ultra-compact, 1200cc Suzuki Swift costs $10,000+. 

Avoid This: Sky-High Import Taxes

Import Taxes cars Costa Rica

It can be tempting to think, “okay, then I’ll import my vehicle to Costa Rica!” And that’s a valid option. It won’t come cheap, though. 

Know that Costa Rican Customs doesn’t use the Kelley Blue Book. Instead, they use their own “black book,” which typically prices vehicles much higher than even the highest Blue Book value. From there Customs will tax your vehicle based on the vehicle’s appraised value (VCAV), which includes a % of its Costa Rican market value (45% to 85%) + freight (calculated at 7% market value) + freight insurance (calculated at 1.5% of market value + freight).

In other words, your $10,000 vehicle in the U.S. could have a $22,000 market value in Costa Rica. If you and I are spitballing generalities, that could equate to an import cost of 50% of $22,000 ($11,000) + freight ($1,540) + freight insurance ($353) = $12,893. You can estimate your black book value with Hacienda’s AutoValor calculator.

And that’s in addition to the easy $1,000+ you’ll pay, just to ship your vehicle from port to port. Suddenly, buying a car in Costa Rica becomes a bit more appealing. Or, at least, understandable.

Know This: Intended Use is Important

Living at the beach vs. the mountains vs. the Central Valley creates very different sets of needs. It also determines the kinds of roads you’ll travel down.

A lot of people wonder if they’ll need a 4WD vehicle. The answer is maybe but, given enough Costa Rican travels, I’d upgrade that to probably. That’s because, while you may only need the standard front-wheel drive most of the time, chances are good that you’ll eventually encounter some of Costa Rica’s famously potholed, narrow, dirt or gravel roads that have huge gutters on either side. 

Avoid This: Buying More Vehicle Than You Need

buying a car for lifestyle Costa Rica

Once you know your typical travels, you’ll know whether you’ll need a 4×4. And if you don’t, well then – don’t! 

Instead, purchase a high-clearance vehicle and then, for your occasional wanderings, rent a 4WD. Every other day of the year, enjoy the savings over a 4WD purchase price, fuel costs, and ongoing maintenance.

Know This: Diesel is Cheaper Than (Some) Gas

diesel vs gas Costa Rica

It can be hard for new arrivals to believe, but as of mid-November 2022, diesel is less expensive per liter than “Plus 91” gasoline – and historically, has frequently been cheaper than any type of gasoline. But that’s not quite as big a factor as you may think when it comes to buying a car in Costa Rica.

What’s more, gas and diesel prices are government-regulated, which means that the cost per liter is the same at every, single gas station. No more hunting around for the best price! (You can check the day’s mandated prices on RECOPE’s website.)

Avoid This: Buying Diesel Just for Cheap Fuel

Depending on various factors, diesel fuel may be cheaper but diesel engines have their cons, too. In Costa Rica, you’ll quickly learn that diesel vehicles (almost always SUVs and pickup trucks) have higher maintenance costs. The cost savings on fuel can be quickly eroded by engine maintenance costs. 

Know This: You May Have to Search Far & Wide

car search Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a small country, which means that supply is always limited. And that means that if you limit your supply area to a specific region, you’ll severely limit what’s available to you. And by that, I don’t mean that you’ll have just 20 vehicles (instead of 100) to consider, but you may limit yourself to a sum total of zero. 

Instead, expand your search to include the Central Valley, where there are many available vehicles. If you don’t want to make the drive to inspect and purchase the vehicle, no problem! There are services that will do the entire thing for you.

Avoid This: Buying Without a Mechanic’s “Vista Buena”

Speaking of buying a car in Costa Rica, never, ever do so without having it reviewed by a good, trustworthy mechanic. YOUR good, trustworthy mechanic (not the seller’s).

That’s because it’s easy to patch up a vehicle and make it look pretty on the outside, while its insides are falling apart. If you’re not an expert in Costa Rican vehicles, hire one. The relatively minuscule cost of their services is worth it, with the very first issue they reveal. 

Know This: Warranties Aren’t What You Think

I’m going to shoot straight with you: It can be difficult to call in a used car warranty in Costa Rica. (Unless it’s from a major dealership – and even then… – I’d consider it a maybe, at best.) 

If you purchase new from a dealership, you also purchase a dealership warranty. That typically includes schedule maintenance and other worth-their-weight items for a certain number or kilometers and/or months. 

Avoid This: Not Considering ALL the Costs

In addition to warranty issues, know that there are a few more costs associated with a car purchase in Costa Rica. These include traspaso (3% of the registered value), legal fees (about $300-$400), the annual marchamo (based on vehicle age + value), and RITEVE (pending current 2022 changes, but usually in the $20 range). 

Questions about Buying a Car in Costa Rica

Questions life in Costa Rica

I may not be a walking encyclopedia, but I’ve been in Costa Rica for long enough that I’ve been around this block many times. I’m happy to answer your questions, provide advice, and walk you through the many ins and outs of buying a car in Costa Rica!

By the way, I’m Rebecca Clower. (My friends call me Becky.) In 2006, I did what you’ve either already done or are readying to do: I followed my heart and moved to Costa Rica. 

For nearly two decades, I’ve learned the ropes. That includes everything from buying and selling cars to buying homes and moving many times. I’ve really made my home here. 

Along the way, I founded one of Costa Rica’s most successful independent brokerages. And for years, I’ve made it my job to help other people do the same. I offer real, honest advice and expertise to my clients. I promise not to sugarcoat the hard truths or gloss over the tough parts. I will tell you the whole truth, the full truth, and even the hard truths.I hope that you’ll find the beautiful truths to outweigh them all. So, sign up for updates, download my free eBook, and get in touch. Let’s get started!

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