It's easy enough to get taken for a ride when you're buying a used car in your hometown. But when you're in a foreign country, you become a sitting target.
If you make it clear from the outset that you know what you're doing, a crooked seller will probably decide to look for an easier target. As we've said in previous articles, never hesitate to mention the D.C.C.R.F (Direction de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes) which will deter many cheats just by the mention of their very name. They are a public anti-fraud office which can immediately give you advice on your rights. You can find the address and telephone number in the Yellow Pages available online at www.parisfranceguide.com.
As far as sources of used cars are concerned, there are several newspapers and magazines on sale in kiosks, in which individuals and dealers advertise. You may have noticed that there are very few gas stations to be found in the centre of Paris, but where they are located in the outskirts, you will also find used cars advertised here.
Any car for sale must have a registration document (le certificat d'immatriculation), more commonly known as la carte gris. This form should be accompanied by both a mechanical service certificate (certificat de contrôle techniquae), and something called a certificat de non-gage, which proves that the car is fully owned by the seller and not fully or partially in the control of a third party, that is to say, a previous seller or a credit company. Moreover, since 1994, everyone selling a car must obtain a certificate from the police, which proves that the vehicle is not subject to any legal sanctions. The idea is to block the sale of a car if its owner has more than °Ë450 of unpaid fines.
If you don't get all these documents, you won't be able to apply for a new carte grise from the police (préfecture), and if you don't have the new carte grise from the préfecture you won't be considered the full owner of the vehicle. In short, checking that all the relevant papers are in order before parting with your money is essential.
If you manage to get your carte grise, the slightest anomaly in the paperwork could come back to haunt you if you happen to be stopped by the police one day. Often they make exhaustive checks, during which they may well discover a missing form or signature. At best you'll end up with a fine of a few euros, and at worst your car could be confiscated and you'll be taken off to the local police station for questioning.
It's worth noting that in France it is often "form over content", which means it's not what you're doing that counts, it's how you do it. Also don't forget that getting into trouble with the police can be a real ordeal in France. A partner from a well-known law firm in Paris says, "Anglophones don't realise that once you get into trouble here it's very difficult to get out of it. My advice is not to get into trouble in the first place. In case you do get stopped by the police, it is advisable to carry your passport and foreign drivers licence with you at all times".
Steering Clear of Fraud
The first rule is to abandon all discussion of a sale if you don't have all the above papers. If you are presented with the right documents, look carefully to see if the description of the car on the carte grise and on the sale agreement (contrat de vente) correspond. Be wary of any carte grise bearing a very recent date: this may imply either a stolen vehicle, or a dealer who buys and resells quickly with the aim of making a quick buck. If you don't check the paper work properly and you end up buying stolen car, be warned: individuals bamboozled into buying a stolen vehicle -receive little protection from the law. Precise guidelines about the wording of contracts are provided by the Commission des Clauses Abusives, so check them out if you are uncertain about any of the details.
Doing Your Homework on the Car
If you are not really in the know when it comes to buying a used car, it's a good idea to have a second opinion when inspecting the vehicle and discussing the sale. To get a rough idea of what the car is worth you can consult the magazine L'Argus; the official used car price guide, which is on sale in most kiosks. This will give you a solid idea of the price range you should expect for different models. It is important to note that the price doesn't always correspond to the age of the vehicle, given that some models are quickly marked down, partly because of design faults, but also simply due to fashion. A fairly new car quoted at a low price may or may not represent a bargain, so go through the main features and mechanical history thoroughly.
Diesel models consume much less fuel, which in turn costs much less than petrol But added to this, a diesel engine can manage up to 60% more km than an equivalent petrol model and according to surveys is liable to breakdown only half as often as a petrol one. Having said that, the price of diesel could easily rise to the same level as petrol (as it did in the UK) for ecological reasons, in which case the demand for diesel models will evaporate, and if you do buy one, it may be almost impossible to sell it a couple of years down the line.
When you check out the car, be aware of the major potential cons; a familiar story of dishonest dealing is the one of the fiddled mileage count on the clock. A friend believing he had picked up a decent model with relatively few km behind it soon learned that it had done at least twice that, the seller having doctored the clock to conceal the fact that the indicator had already been round the dial once. French sellers may also try to exploit the hazy notion of km among some Anglo-Americans, so make sure you are fully converted into metric distance!
As mentioned earlier, the rigor of police patrols on the road means that it is vital to signal all faults, even minor, before making the sale. For instance, a faulty headlight, indicator, or merely a dent in the bumper, can provoke a fine if you catch the officers in the wrong mood. If you have any serious doubts about your position, further advice can be obtained from consumer associations, contactable via your local town hall, (La mairie).
Your Rights as a Buyer
French law happily places considerable responsibility on the seller to indicate accurately the mechanical history of the car, including past faults and repair work. For instance, if the seller lies about the number of kilometres on the clock, the number of previous owners, or the year of manufacture, then he or she is liable to prosecution in a criminal court. This is equally the case concerning the non-declaration of faults affecting the safety of the vehicle (e.g. the brakes or the suspension). Even when there is no dishonesty involved, the seller is still liable for any fault discovered by the buyer, which is considered beyond 'normal wear'.
To avoid getting taken for a ride, demonstrate that you are aware of your rights before you start discussing the deal, you could for example take a copy of this magazine with you. However, if you are the victim of a dishonest sale, you do have immediate recourse to compensation in terms of the seller's obligations outlined above. Getting your Money Back
The quickest and least complicated means of getting compensation is to settle privately with the seller. In this case you should compose a formal letter setting out clearly the difference between the description of the car in the advertisement / sale agreement and its actual condition. If necessary seek the advice of a lawyer or a consumer body to make sure of your entitlements. This will hopefully prompt a total or partial refund according to the seriousness of the faults.
If you don't get your money back at this stage, you can threaten (and go ahead) with getting advice from the D.C.C.R.F (Direction de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes), details of which are mentioned previously in this article. If this doesn't prove successful, the last resort is to file a complaint with the public prosecutor (Procureur de la République), of the criminal court in the town where the seller resides. Fortunately, this effort can lead to the sale being rendered void, and compensation being granted by the court.
The Auction Option
Picking up a car at an auction (les enchères) can be a cheap alternative to dealing with another person through an advertisement. Prices are on average 25% less than those listed in L'Argus, the used car price guide, particularly where the mileage involved is quite hefty. Each vehicle comes with an exhaustive description, covering up to 100 different mechanical checks, allowing the prospective buyer to make an informed decision. Given the cut and thrust of the bidding, you may still want the support of a French second opinion. Otherwise, follow closely the vehicle history on the distributed sheet and make your offer accordingly. You can find some "apparently" terrific bargains in Les Moniteurs de Ventes, a newspaper that reports the sale of assets of companies in liquidation. This publication is on sale in most kiosks.
The Best Choice
We found that the best way to buy a used car was to go to a dealer. Many garages take in cars from clients in part-exchange for a new one, and the cars are usually guaranteed for a year and come with a full history. One of our readers recommends the Darlmart Peugeot garage in the 15th arrondisement. He says, "I bought some magazines and started looking at used cars, but they were all out of the centre of Paris. Sometimes even going to see them was a scary experience! You don't know who you would end up with or where. A friend of mine gave me the address of Darlmat (144 Boulevard de Grenelle) and came across a really good selection of low mileage cars.
"I had a problem with my car shortly after I bought it, and was able to use Peugeot Assistance because of the year long guarantee that I had been given. A mechanic arrived about 10 minutes after my call. That was pretty impressive for a used car, especially as there was no charge and on further investigation the (very good-humoured) mechanic explained that my problem was that I had run out of petrol. The other thing which really impressed me is that the company has some secret formula for cleaning the cars and when you pick your car up, just after you have bought it, it really looked and smelled like new. That certainly wasn't the case with the other used cars I saw".