Buying a Car in France
During my past three-month sojourns to France, I have enjoyed renting a car through Auto France, a special program for US residents with affordable long-term rental rates on brand new, fully insured Peugeot vehicles. Since I now have a home in France and a place to store a car, it made more financial sense to buy a vehicle. In case you're wondering, a non-resident can buy a car in France as long as the buyer has a French address.
After much research, I discovered the car buying process in France is different than the US, but in some ways much the same. Here’s how it all unfolded.
Setting my criteria
First, I asked everyone I know in France what brand of cars they recommend. Peugeot and Renault were the most highly recommended, mainly because they are French brands and there are plenty of mechanics available to work on them. Friends also said not to buy a diesel car because diesel is being phased out, which will be great for air quality. Diesel-powered cars built before 2006, and those with gasoline engines built before 1997 have already been banned from driving in the greater Paris area.
Having an automatic transmission was a big requirement. Although automatic cars are gaining in popularity, most cars in Europe are manual, so that lessened the number of available vehicles. Automatics also cost more. I could have learned to drive a stick shift, but while driving I’d rather keep my focus on navigating those narrow country roads.
In 2020, I traded in my 17-year-old PT Cruiser for a new Hyundai Kona. Since then, I’ve become spoiled with all the new safety features. My French car had to at least have a backup camera and hopefully a lane departure warning system and blind-spot monitoring. This meant it couldn’t be too old a model.
A new car was out of my budget, especially when new cars come with a twenty percent Value Added Tax (VAT). I prefer driving a smaller car in Europe. When I've driven a rented SUV, more than once I’ve found myself literally stuck on an unbelievably tight village road that dead ended suddenly. Never again. Yet, I wanted a safe car and one that can be easily seen by other drivers. Hence my preference for a white car over grey.
Buying from a dealer
There are plenty of second-hand cars for sale on Facebook marketplace and on Leboncoin, the French Craigslist, but I decided to buy from a dealer for a couple of reasons. One, you typically receive a warranty, at least three to six months and sometimes 12 months. Secondly, with a dealer you know you’ll have an up-to-date controle technique, which ensures your vehicle is in good running order and meets emissions standards. Three, a dealer takes care of all the paperwork including registering the car on your behalf. Anytime I can avoid dealing with French bureaucracy is a win-win.
The next step was to research cars online that met my criteria. There is a plethora of information online through Google searches and YouTube. I narrowed my choices down to the Peugeot 208 and the Renault Clio and Capture. I’d driven a Peugeot 208 from Auto France on a couple of occasion, but after reading reviews of all three cars, I started to favor Renault over Peugeot and the Clio over the Capture. All three have five-star safety ratings.
For in-person research, I visited a local Renault dealer with a friend. I wanted to sit in the two models to get a feel for them, hoping the Clio, the smaller and less expensive of the two, wouldn’t feel too claustrophobic. It’s about the size of a Ford Focus. The dealer didn’t have any Clio automatics and the automatic cars he did have were way above my budget.
I didn’t have a lot of time. I’d only rented a car for four weeks and in two weeks I'd have to return it. I was quite dismayed when the dealer said, "If you want a car in two weeks, you'll have to buy one today." You see, buying a car in France is not the same as the US. You don’t go in, write a check or use your credit card and drive away in the car. More on this later.
Searching for my car
At this point, I realized I’d need to widen the scope of my search. There are several online sites where dealers and individuals post cars for sale. The most reputable sites include:
I mainly used L’Argus because it has a good search engine for narrowing down available vehicles by price, key features, mileage and within a 100 km radius. I found only two Renault Clios (pronounced reh · no · klee · oh), both an hour away in opposite directions. I decided I was more interested in the hybrid model, especially since it included a 12-month warranty I can use at my local Renault dealer who's only 20 minutes away.
I made an appointment with the dealer through the L’Argus online messaging system. It’s always best to make an appointment to ensure the car is there and ready for you to test drive. I’d like to say I waltzed into the Renault dealer and did the whole transaction in French, but that’s not the reality. I did have most of my questions printed out in French. But thank goodness for Google Translate.
After taking a test drive, I was pretty sure it was the right car for me. It was comfortable, drove well and had some, but not all the safety features I wanted. I did manage to say to the salesman in French that I would think about it over lunch and return that afternoon if I was still interested. Normally, I’m not an impulsive buyer, but the clock was ticking and there weren’t many Clios for sale in the area in my price range. It’s a popular car in France. Over lunch I planned my negotiation strategy.
I returned with renewed energy and inspected the car again. It didn’t have a backup camera, forward radar detection or blind-spot monitoring, but it did have a lane departure warning system. Blind-spot monitoring wasn’t something they could install after market. However, the backup camera and forward radar detection could be installed at an additional cost. I negotiated the addition of the two safety features for an overall reduced price, plus the cost of the registration. Although the salesman initially rebuffed my request to put the purchase on my credit card, I held firm until his manager agreed I could charge over half the purchase to my card including the initial 1,000 Euro deposit. Got a build those frequent flyer miles!
Picking up my car
As I mentioned before, I didn’t drive away with the car that day. Nothing happens fast in France. They need time to process the paperwork and registration. And I needed time to obtain auto insurance, which I acquired through my bank.
Two weeks later I took the train to Nantes and a taxi to the dealership to pick up my Renault Clio. The salesman had the car ready to go, parked in a shady garage and equipped with the high visibility vest and warning triangle required by French law. I’d already completed a bank transfer of the cash portion, so it was just a matter of signing the paperwork and making the final payment by credit card. Then we sat in the car while he showed me each and every clever feature of my new vehicle.
The next morning, the postman delivered my certificate d’immatriculation (registration) or carte gris (grey card), which must be with my car at all times. And soon after, my green card showing proof of insurance arrived. As per regulations, I placed it on the right side of my car's front windshield.
I have to say, purchasing a car in France was not that hard. Buying through a dealer made the process easier and ensured my complete compliance with French law. After I picked up my car north of Nantes and drove off into the French countryside, it felt wonderful knowing I had my own safe, reliable and legal vehicle in France.