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Driving in France can be quite a challenge at times, particularly if you’ve only just arrived! The French do have a reputation for being maniacs on the road, and they have a different relationship with their vehicles. You’ve probably seen many well-used older cars on the road, dusty and dented, rattling or missing parts. Many French car owners only wash their car before they plan to sell it. Used cars in France generally hold their price for years, so here we’ve added a few notes and useful phrases if you are looking to buy something second-hand.

Buying a second-hand car in France

Car culture in France, with the possible exception of the major cities, is all about making it last. It’s one of the reasons most used cars have several thousand kilometers on the clock. There are breakers yards aplenty and it’s not uncommon in rural areas to see people driving their daily runabout which in other countries would be treasured or assigned to the scrapyard! For example, in my village, at least 3 vignerons that I know of drive a Renault 4L, possibly from the 1960s!

Distance makes a difference

It is generally known that some types of vehicles are more expensive in certain areas. If you are prepared to travel across the country, you may find your ideal car at a fraction of the price advertised locally.

What is a ‘Carte Grise’?

The ‘Carte Grise’ (the official name is Certificat d’Immatriculation) is the registration document for your French vehicle and should always be carried with the driver (keep a copy in the car, just in case). It specifies information about the owner as well as the vehicle, including:

  • the vehicle registration number
  • the owner’s name and address
  • details of the vehicle (make, model, year of manufacture, horsepower, engine and chassis numbers)
  • its compliance with European pollution standards

When a car is bought or sold, the new ownership must be registered within one month of the transfer so that a new Carte Grise can be issued. All Carte Grise requests, as well as other procedures such as requesting a new driving licence, have recently (November 2017) moved to an on-line system at https://ants.gouv.fr/ (ANTS). You will need to create an account here and also, as a dual-identification system, create an online account with France Connect (https://franceconnect.gouv.fr/). You can only create an account with France Connect if you have a French tax number, an Améli online account or are available at your French address to be certified as present in France by your local postman. The system is rather complicated to set up and, from what we have seen so far, it is also tricky to get the hang of the stages of processing your request ‘behind the scenes’. We at Renestance are learning the ropes now, but if you are doing this as a one-off, you may find it all rather frustrating.

Alternatively, some car dealers are authorized to handle the registration of the car and can supply you with the official Carte Grise certificate.

Common faults and what to ask for

Basic servicing, like an oil change (vidange), is often done by the owner of the car, primarily to save money, but also because the French love their DIY. What could be simpler than changing a filter and refilling with oil? The same can apply to brake pads (plaquettes), so the first things to look for on a second hand car are uneven wear on the brakes, and oil leaks.

If you have someone with you with a modicum of knowledge, they will be able to spot things that might have been bodged, or done with the wrong tools (leaving marks where there should be none, for instance).

Even the registration number of a car can be useful. Since the registration system changed, a car with the old style number plate will have had the same owner since before 2009, potentially a very good thing if they have looked after it. If however the registration is recent, questions may be raised about why they are selling it so soon.

Lastly on the common things to look at, tires. French law specifies that the tires must match on the axle. This means matched pairs front and rear. If they don’t, the car won’t pass the CT until they do, and that can get expensive. Most tire outlets in France only sell in pairs for this reason.

A few useful terms when looking for a car :

  • Voiture d’occasion – second-hand car
  • Contrôle technique (CT) – obligatory vehicle inspection (MOT)
  • Vidange et remplacement des filtres – oil and filter change
  • Quand est-ce que la courroie de distribution a été changée? When was the timing belt changed?
  • Et la pompe d’eau? – And the water pump?
  • Plaquettes – brake pads
  • Parallélisme – tire balancing

What is the process of buying in France, and what are the pitfalls?

In France, if you go to a dealership, you can expect to pay a premium for a used car. On more expensive cars however, you can get a warranty of up to a year. Smaller independent dealers will be happier to negotiate, but don’t expect miracles. The usual offer is to keep the price the same but give the car a decent service, sometimes even including the timing belt. A curious quirk of many small dealers, (perhaps due to staffing levels which are consistently low) is that they leave the cars dirty on the forecourt until someone shows interest. For your second visit, the car will be clean…!

Buying privately can be a minefield. It’s legally binding to have a CT (Contrôle Technique – a government safety test) done within the last 6 months, for cars over 4 years old. Sellers are able to sell without a CT, but it must be stated on the paperwork (triplicate of course), and the car is not roadworthy, nor can you register it until it passes a new CT. We know one lady who was about to buy a car for a good price, and the CT was just over 6 months old. On our strong recommendation she asked for a new CT, and something came up on the test that cost several hundred euros to fix – Caveat emptor!

Whether buying privately or from a professional, make sure to ask for the ‘carnet d’entretien,’ which shows the repairs and maintenance done on the car. Another thing to be aware of is insurance. Take out your own policy to drive the car away, as the seller’s insurance expires at midnight on the day of the sale.

Importing a vehicle

At the beginning of this post, right hand drive vehicles were mentioned. If you’re happy with the steering wheel on the right (wrong) side, buying a car from the UK is still a possibility. Private sales, auctions, dealerships; the choice is endless, and prices generally a lot lower.

You will incur a few expenses getting your car re-registered in France. A foreign registered car imported to France will need to go through a series of checks, and have certain French-language documents, which can also be costly, before being eligible for registration and a Carte Grise. Although the procedure can be quite long winded, as with most French bureaucracy it’s a process that has to be followed, and we know it inside out.

Ultimately your choice of vehicle will be dictated by your circumstances and daily needs (autoroute or just the boulangerie?) and the amount of time you may have available to shop around.

It all may sound a bit baffling but we, at Renestance, have been through the car buying and registration process many times, both personally and professionally. If you need some advice before purchasing a car, give us a call! We’ll help you with get motoring with a minimum of surprises 😉

Nicole Hammond

Nicole is a bilingual Brit from Cambridge who has been living in the Languedoc since 2002 and is one of the first Renestance's Consultants. She knows how to get things done and can find the key contacts, having worked in real estate, managed two businesses of her own, and started a large social group for English-speakers in the area.

All articles by: Nicole Hammond

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