Buying a Car in South Africa


If you’re planning an extended stay in South Africa, you may want to investigate buying a car.

The advantages of having your own wheels here are numerous: (1) SA public transport is dire, and a car obviates the need to use it; (2) there are hundreds of lovely day trips to take from the country’s major centres; (3) there are dozens of even lovelier weekends away, plus road trips, if only one could travel conveniently (see the SA Blog category Serial Adventurer for more); (4) don’t forget about car-radio-enabled iPods, which let you blast ghoulish old favorites – Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again, for instance – while travelling through fresh new landscapes; and (5) you can sell the car when your trip is over for close to what you paid for it, limiting your transport costs to petrol, insurance, and paperwork.

Before you decide to buy a car, however, take note of this caution: people who sell cars are the same the world over. They hide the vehicle’s faults and exaggerate its charms. It’s best to enter a deal with your eyes open. That said, proceed to:

SouthAfricaBlog.com’s 10-Step Guide to Buying a Car in South Africa

Note: This guide pertains to buying used cars, not new cars. An important term to learn when buying or selling a used car is voetstoots (pronounced FOOT-stuts). This is Afrikaans for “as is.” Someone buying or selling something “voetstoots” makes no warranty about anything to do with item. It’s bought or sold in the condition that it’s seen.

Step 1: Gasping in Disbelief at SA Car Prices
They’re high. Americans, who can get cars for $100 or less, will be particularly shocked. Before you decide to buy a car, please check that hiring one over the same period won’t be cheaper or less hassle. Best Beetle, for instance, rents out VW Beetles (the old model, not the new one!) for only a few thousand rand per month. These cars are clearly not for roadtrips, but other agencies also have monthly deals, on newer cars, which can handle long distances.

Step 2: Deciding Your Budget
The main factors in deciding your budget for a car are: (a) how long are you going to be in SA? and (b) where are you planning to drive? The longer your stay, and the rougher the driving, the newer your car should be. As a minimum, I’d suggest keeping R10,000 – R15,000 aside, which will get you a dependable city runner. For R15,000 – R25,000 you can find a sturdy roadtrip car for the major tarred routes, which will also handle some driving on gravel. R25,000 – R40,000 gets a vehicle that you can take cross-country, and into game reserves with dirt roads. A budget that’s above R50,000 gives close to unlimited choice in the SA used car market.

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Step 3: Choosing the Make
The chief question here has to do with your exit strategy: How quickly will you be able to sell the car, when you’re ready to leave SA? It’s important to look for a car that appeals not just to you, but to other potential buyers. In this respect – especially in the lower half of budget outlined above – Toyotas and VWs in decent condition are particularly recommended. For R10,000 – R25,000 look for Toyota Conquests, VW Jettas and Opel Kadettes – all smaller cars with 4 doors – which are 9 – 14 years old. SA Blog can almost guarantee that, if you buy a Toyota Conquest, you’ll be able to sell it again within a few days.

Step 4: Finding the Car
There are several options here, the best of which is simply to scan the classifieds. Newspapers to look in include the Cape Argus (Cape Town), the Star (Jo’burg) and The Mercury (Durban). There are also dedicated classifieds papers and magazines: the Auto Freeway (Western Cape), the Cape Ads (Cape Town) and Junk Mail (Jo’burg). Last, browse online classifieds at autotrader.co.za, among others.

You probably want to avoid buying a car from a dealer, because the object of this exercise is to get your money back at the end of your trip, and dealers always sell high and buy low.

Step 5: Getting the Car Checked Out
If you’ve found a car within your budget that you like, insist on having it checked out by a mechanic before you buy it. It’s perfectly reasonable for the seller to ask for a (refundable) deposit in return. The best place to go for an assessment is an AA Test Centre (click for list of centres), which requires an advance booking, and which costs R655 (as of January 06). This is a bit more than what a normal mechanic would charge, but it’s comprehensive, and you can negotiate the cost out of the car’s final price. Otherwise, if you’re in Cape Town, book a slot with Your Corresponden’ts excellent mechanic in the city centre, Johann, on 021-424-2416.

Step 6: Checking if the Car is Stolen
Your car’s been given a reasonable bill of health, and you’re ready to buy it. Make sure you’re getting what you think you’re getting! Car theft is rife in SA. The AA will check to see if the one you like is stolen for R73. Phone AA Autocheck on 0861 601 601 or 012 365 9510, and have the relevant details (i.e., engine number, VIN, etc.) ready. You can pay with a credit card.

Step 7: Getting the Car Roadworthied and Licensed
If you’ve bought a car from a private seller, you’ll need to get it licensed from the municipality where you’re staying. Budget a full day for this step. First, find where to go to get the car’s roadworthy certificate. Once again, AA provides this service, for between R200 and R300 (click on the link above for testing centres), as do most municipalities. (In Cape Town, go to the Green Point Traffic Centre on Green Point’s Main Road. The charge is R150; call ahead on 021 406-8700). Second, find where to go to get the cars licensed in your name, usually the city hall or civic centre. (In Cape Town, it’s the Civic Centre on the Foreshore.) Take the following documents with you: your passport, the agreement of sale (signed by both parties), the car’s old license documentation, and its new roadworthy certificate. Present these items with R200 – R300 (depending on the car’s year and make) to the clerk behind the thick green glass, and it’s officially yours!

Step 8: Protecting the Car
If you’ve bought a car with an immobiliser (an electronic theft prevention system), terrific. If not, go to your nearest Game and buy a steering wheel lock (R100 – R300). Even better, buy a gear lock (inevitably you will have bought a stick shift – automatic cars are rare indeed), and have a mechanic install it for you (R500 – R1000). You might also want to consider installing an alarm (R500 – R1500) – you can recoup the price when you sell the car later.

Step 9: Getting Insurance
Vehicle insurance is not mandatory in South Africa – which is precisely why it’s so highly recommended! Note that insurers require a valid International Driver’s License before they’ll extend cover to your shiny new heartbreaker. Best rates are at Budget and Dial-Direct.

Step 10: Selling the Car
Clearly, you want to do this before you leave the country, so it’s good to start advertising the car early. In many cases, you can sell the car before you relinquish it. Classifieds, again, are the best bet. For cars under R20,000 most publications will accept your ad for free. What price should you sell for? Depending on how much time you’ve given yourself, why not try the price you paid? It’s guaranteed to have some legitimacy in the marketplace! Don’t forget to tally up all your costs before you sell: you may want to factor them into your initial offering price. Last, make sure you sell your car “voetstoots” – the word must feature in the contract you draw up, as in “Buyer agrees to purchase car ‘voetstoots‘…” etc.