Buying a car has been quite a learning experience here – from the laws of registration, the lack of model year designations, new vs. used from dealer vs. used from individual, insurance, etc.. All of these things are generally the same as back home, but there are some odd differences… Hopefully this post will help others in our position.
If you’re buying a used vehicle, the best classifieds website we’ve found has been automobiles.nc. It’s sort of like craigslist except a little junkier – you can’t filter by price and some people are even worse at writing succinct, concise ads than on craigslist, but it works. There are subsections for cars, motorcycles, boats, help wanted, and so forth on other parts of the site. One thing that’s different from the states is that people don’t typically post the vehicle model year – instead they post the first 3 numbers of the license plate which indicates the year it was put into service. Once a new car is plated, it keeps the tags forever rather than changing with the ownership of the vehicle like in the states. To determine the year of the vehicle based on the license plate number you’ll need a copy of L’Argus magazine (850 XPF) which is available from gas stations and some supermarkets. The magazine has a table in the back which shows which plate numbers correspond to each month of the year. The magazine also has tables that show suggested prices for used vehicles – think Kelley Blue Book except instead of an online search it’s a complicated table… yeah.
Due to our employer, we’re able to get a duty-free vehicle and considering the relatively good resale value and some other relative “simplicity” factors, we decided to go with a new car from the dealership which was also an experience. Now buying a new car isn’t going to save you money, but things do tend to hold their value here a bit better than back home so we were able to justify it to ourselves.
The car dealerships here are a bit different from the states in that there is only one for each brand of vehicle and furthermore there are only 3 or 4 companies that control all of the dealerships here on the island. The largest is CFAO which runs Almameto which sells Citroen, Great Wall, Nissan, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru and probably some more I’m forgetting. Menard is another child of CFAO that has Peugeot, Chevrolet, Isuzu, Ssang Yong, and BMW. Royal Motors is Hyundai and I didn’t bother finding who runs Renault (haven’t been too impressed with any of the French cars, really…). I’m sure I’m forgetting some other brands but you get the idea.
The frustrating thing about the car dealerships is that they are like most other businesses and are open from about 8-11:30 then closed for lunch and then re-open from 1:30-5:30. Saturdays they are open for maybe 4 hours in the morning and Sunday not at all. This means you need to go during the day, call ahead to see if cars are available to test drive, or run out for a few minutes at a time after work.
I think the strangest thing about the dealerships is doing test drives… Depending on the place/car, one of three things will happen:
- “sorry we dont have any you can test today. Come back next week” (lolwut?)
- The showroom car gets pulled outside and you drive it (best case)
- You drive one of the employee’s cars that happens to have the same model only about a year older, with cigarette smell, baby seats, and sporting gear in the back (most likely)
So that’s pretty strange and makes it hard to get a feel for the cars compared to each other. I think some dealerships in the states would be terrified of option 3.
So now you’ve chosen a car you like, you’ve bargained a bit on the price (although not much – there’s not a huge margin for bargaining here), and you know what color you want. There are a few ways your next step can go:
- It’s on a boat and will be in Noumea in a few weeks/months
- It’s in the warehouse and will be available in a week
- It’s the one you and everyone else sat in in the showroom and will be available in a week
Ideally you’ll pick one that’s in stock or else you’ll be waiting months for it to arrive, clear customs, get to the dealer, etc., etc. while you continue to dump money into a rental car, bum rides, or take the bus.
As for paying, since all the bank cards issued here have a smart chip, we got lots of confused looks when we handed over our American card with the magnetic stripe. There was some gesticulating and poor translation happening as the car dealership folks tried to swipe a card for the first time ever but it all worked out in the end!
Now that you’ve paid for your car, you can drive off and be on your way…. NOT. It’ll be a few days (about a week for us) until it is prepped, registered with the proper authorities and so forth. Luckily for us, the dealership takes care of the registration.
Sounds like a good time to buy some insurance!
There are plenty of insurance agencies around Noumea, most of which are French groups. We just went with a recommendation from some friends with our insurance choice. Pretty standard operation there except you have to go to the office – doing it over the phone or email is not really an option for anything here. You’ll need the standard stuff – ID, proof of residence, the “proforma” quote from the dealership, and the temporary “carte gris” (gray card) number which corresponds to your vehicle, which is also provided by the dealer. Our insurance process was pretty straightforward – just some signing and google translating…
You can’t get your insurance card until your car is actually ready for you to drive away though… naturally. This means that when they call up and say your car is ready, you have to head to the insurance office, pay your premium (a little bit cheaper than our policy in the US surprisingly), sign some forms, and then you’ll get your insurance card that you can take to the dealership to pick up your shiny new car!
At this point you’ll have a temporary tag while the dealership takes care of the “final” gray card setup which takes another week. After that week you get to go back to the head to the dealership to get your official gray card and get some tags riveted on your car then head to the insurance agency to get your policy updated with the “real” registration number and finally be on your way.
So in typical Noumea fashion, you’ll make at least 3 trips to each office before all is said and done, but then again people are usually pretty willing to help along the process. Since it’s so sunny here and I have a feeling the nickel mining doesn’t do much good for acid rain, I’ll be spending some time keeping fresh wax and protectant on the car to keep it in good shape and to keep that shiny finish sparkling. It seems that the sun here really does a number on paint jobs judging by the cars we see driving around with peeling clear coats and faded colors. A little work washing every few weeks and making sure a fresh coat of wax stays on goes a long way!