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Buying a Car in Costa Rica

If you’re thinking about buying a car in Costa Rica, then you’re probably also wondering about the costs, required paperwork, maintenance, and other requirements of owning a car.

Believe it or not, this is one of the more straightforward and easily accomplished tasks in your new life. That said, most people fall into either the dread-it (“ugh, another thing to check off the list!”) or enjoy-it (“so close to achieving normalcy!”) category.

We hope you’ll be the latter – or at least, feeling neutral about the whole process. Because, yes, while it’s a process, it’s also one you can complete in just a few days or weeks (unless you’re searching for something very specific).

Brand

When it comes to buying a car in Costa Rica, it’s best to opt for one of the major brands: Toyota and Hyundai are the most widely sold, with Nissan, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, and Honda trailing close enough behind.
Not only will there be more local mechanics to service these brands – and by local, we mean that you won’t have to travel all the way to a specific (and specialized) dealership in San José – but your costs will be lower. First, because you won’t have to visit that above-referenced “specialized” mechanic or dealership but, even more importantly, because parts are prevalent.

Purchase Price

We’re not going to go into this too deeply, but be prepared for a little bit of car-price sticker shock: Like it or not (agree with it or not…), cars are subject to high import taxes AND they retain their value better and longer in Costa Rica.
And that all boils down to a higher purchase price – usually, anywhere from 1.5 to 3 times more expensive than you might expect “back home.” For example, in 2021, a 2006 Toyota RAV4 costs about $8,000; a 2017 Hyundai Tucson is over $20,000; and an ultra-compact 2016 Suzuki Swift costs about $9,000.
Just remember, when it comes time to sell, your sales price will also be higher (especially if you’ve purchased one of the bigger brands).

Costa Rican Roads (aka “Do I Need a 4WD?”)

Costa Rican roads are… Well, let’s just say that some are so bumpy, we like to call it a “Costa Rican massage.” And those that aren’t bumpy? Well, they may be narrow. Or potholed. Or paved with molasses (true story).
So, do you need a 4×4 in Costa Rica? The real answer is, “it depends.” As we’ll mention throughout this post, it’s more a cost-benefit analysis than anything else. If you live in one of the more “urban” areas of Costa Rica, you won’t need a 4×4 – until you do. But, if you live in a beach town or a rural area or far from the hustle and bustle… Well, you’re going to encounter some of those Costa Rican massage conditions.
That said, it’s still a cost-benefit analysis: If you don’t often encounter tough roads – if your typical daily, weekly, or monthly wanderings don’t take you off-road or onto dirt backgrounds – then you won’t need a 4WD very often. In that case, it may be best to save the added purchase cost and gas costs, and only rent a 4×4 when you venture out for far-flung adventures.
But, if you live on the hillside or back a dirt road, if you live by the beach or like to take Sunday afternoon rides to places unknown – in that case, we’d recommend the 4WD.

Gas Costs (and Full Serve, Everywhere)

Just as a heads-up, gas may (or may not) be pricier than it is back home. It depends on where you used to call home!
Let’s start with the good news: Gasoline prices are regulated throughout Costa Rica. And by regulated, we mean that price is government-mandated, so it’s always the same, at every gas station (called la bomba, by the way). Additionally, gas is always full-serve, so know whether you need Plus (91 octane), Súper (95 octane), or diesel – and practice saying it! (Plus, por favor!)
Now, on to price: You can check the day’s mandated prices on RECOPE’s website. As of publication, Plus costs ¢715 per liter, Súper costs ¢734 per liter, and diesel costs ¢596 per liter. To put this in U.S. terms, for example, that’s $5.20/gallon for Plus, $5.35/gallon for Súper, and $4.35/gallon for diesel (approximate prices, as of publication).

Before You Buy: 4 Considerations

While none of the below will likely change your decision to purchase a car, here are a few considerations that might influence your ultimate choice:

Where to Buy a Car

While it won’t ultimately be the specific where you buy, every purchase should begin online. 
You can also look on Craigslist although, beware, there tends to be a lot of fake listings there, so it’s best for getting comparisons. You can also search on Facebook Marketplace, as Facebook is a Big Deal in Costa Rica and so it’s no surprise that people list their vehicles there, too.
If you plan to purchase new, then you should also get in touch with local dealerships. Many will be located in San José or, if you’re lucky, nearby Liberia. Keep in mind that, when you purchase new from the dealership, foreigners do not qualify for financing. Expect to pay in cash. (You will receive a dealership warranty, though, and that equals peace of mind in Costa Rica!)
Tip: If you purchase through a private individual, you absolutely must hire a private (and trusted) mechanic to look over the vehicle pre-purchase.

Riteve (RTV) + Marchamo

While these aren’t purchase costs, they are owning-a-vehicle costs, so we thought we’d mention: When buying a car in Costa Rica, you’re responsible for two mandatory annual fees: Riteve (pronounced ree-tev-ay, often written as RTV) and “marchamo”.
Briefly, Riteve is the annual vehicle inspection process and costs ¢12,000, or about $20. We’d recommend having your mechanic do a once-over before you go, though, to cover your bases and prevent headaches. (No one loves paying for re-inspection after failing due to a license plate ding…).
Marchamo, on the other hand, is your yearly property tax/license plate fee (more or less) and is calculated based on the age and value of your vehicle. You can check a vehicle’s “marchamo” cost on the INS website.

Should I buy it in Guanacaste?

You may have heard that you shouldn’t buy at the beach/in Guanacaste because the roads are challenging and the salt air can be corrosive. Those things are true but mostly, it comes down to selection – and selection is a lot better in the Central Valley.
So, once you’ve gotten a handle on general pricing, it’s time to start looking for your future vehicle. And, when that time comes, here’s an important tip: Set your online the whole country because if not, you’re going to severely limit your options.
What’s more, buying a car in San José doesn’t have to be a headache, either: There are people and services who will go to Central Valley, professionally review the car, and even bring it back to Guanacaste for you. For anyone who doesn’t have the time, or the Spanish, or the patience, this can be a great option.

Purchasing Costs

In addition to the vehicle’s purchase price, be prepared to pay notary/attorney fees ($300-$400) and “traspaso” (transfer) fees (3% of the registered fiscal value), which cover your fees for property transfer and vehicle registration.

Warranties and Maintenance

If you purchase new, you’ll have a warranty – and that’s a huge plus. If you’re buying a used car, you’ll need a good and reliable mechanic.
If you want to keep maintenance costs low, purchase a common brand to have access to more mechanics and lower-cost replacement parts.
When it comes time to make your purchase, you can do so in your own name or in a corporation name – it’s up to you. The purchase process and cost won’t change, either way.
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