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Buying a Used Car in Tijuana

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#1 Daniel


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Posted 16 October 2010 - 01:46 AM

Buying a Used Car in TJ

I've found that used cars in Tijuana sell for less than in the US. I recently bought a used car in Tijuana as did a friend of mine. Both of us took what I consider to be proper precautions and both of us had a good experience.

Before buying the car I did some research which included speaking to somebody at the DMV and a detective working for the Chula Vista police department. Hopefully what follows will be useful to some on this site.

The first step, of course, is finding a car you want to buy. Goggle "Auto Trader Mexico" and then go to the section for Tijuana. I think you'll find plenty to get you started. Of course, you can also use Craig's List and the local newspapers as well as visiting used car lots to find used cars for sale.

On the Mexican Auto Trader site you'll find lots of used cars for sale that have US (EEUU) plates. I suggest sticking to used cars with US titles, unless you have "special needs" (such when you're buying a car for a chica).

Just so you know, you can drive a car with Mexican plates in the US using a US driver's license if the car isn't registered to you. A Mexican can drive a car with US plates using a Mexican driver's license if the car is registered to somebody else and the person has a letter from the registered owner granting permission to operate the car in Mexico.

As mentioned above, if you have a Mexican driver's license you can legally drive a car with Mexican plates or alternately you can put the title of a vehicle with a Mexican title in the name of another person and drive it using a US driver's license. You can also import a vehicle with a Mexican title into the US. (The DMV has a form for such purposes.) Things go fairly smoothly if you can prove the car was manufactured to US standards (as is the case if the car once had a US title). However, some vehicles are made for sale outside the US and consequently are not manufactured to US requirements. If the vehicle lacks all the equipment required for sale in the US you won't be able to import it. So, once again, I suggest sticking to vehicles with US titles unless you have "special needs" or a have Mexican driver's license and plan on operating the vehicle in Mexico. (California law requires registering a vehicle in California within 30 days of it's entering the state--and border crossing records can be used to establish when a car entered California.)

The most important thing is not to buy a stolen car. Lots of people inadvertently buy a stolen car—and end up with a felony conviction. In my research I spoke with the Chula Vista police department and they tell me they frequently run across this and have no choice but to arrest anybody who is operating a stolen vehicle.

As for the VIN number; you can get it over the phone before seeing the vehicle. Don't worry about offending the seller as this is standard operating procedure when buying/selling cars in Tijuana. If the seller won't give you the information it's a big red flag.

If the car has US plates then run the VIN through Carfax or Auto Check to see who is the legal owner and if the car is stolen. I used Auto Check as you get to run an unlimited number of cars during your 30 day membership.

On 8th Street, between Revolucion and Constitution next to the police station, is a house that has been converted into offices. Upstairs on the left is the office of an attorney who for 200 pesos will check to see if a car is stolen. If you're buying a car with a Mexican title I strongly suggest you contact him or somebody else who can tell you if the car is stolen. (Carfax and Auto Check only provide information about cars with US titles.)

When you inspect the car be sure to inspect the VIN number. Typically the VIN number will be on the dashboard, door pillar, and motor. Be sure the VIN number on the vehicle matches what's on the title. Don't just check the VIN on the dashboard as sometimes car thieves replace the dashboard with a dashboard bought from a junk yard to hide the fact the car is stolen.

Equally important, is making sure you get a clean title. Take the same steps you would when buying a car in the US to be sure their isn't a lien on the car. There are a lot of people who buy cars in the US (from dealers, at car auctions, etc.) and resell them in the US. So in may cases the title won't be in the name of the person selling the car. Obviously, in such cases you need to be sure to the Bills of Sale are in order and everything "is Kosher." If you don't know what to look for then just stick to cars where the title is in the name of the seller. When buying a car it is only prudent to get and keep a copy of the seller's ID proving he/she is titled owner of the car. (Don't be bashful—do it!)

When you ask the seller for the VIN number, the mileage, etc. don't forget to ask if the car as a salvage title because lot of people bring wrecked cars to fix them and then sell them. (Salvage is spelled the same in both English and Spanish, but is pronounced differently.) I'll let the buyer decided if he should or should not buy a salvaged car, but I do think it's important for the buyer to know what he's buying. (In California the title will state the car is a salvage vehicle when appropriate. This, of course, is another reason to use Carfax, Auto Check, etc.)

Something else you need to pay attention to is the SMOG equipment. SMOG equipment isn't required in Tijuana so it's more common in TJ than it is in the US to tamper with SMOG equipment. The first thing to do is look under the car and see if the catalytic convertor has been removed. Also, put the key in the ignition and turn it until the "idiot lights" come on without starting the car. (You should see the oil light, charging light, etc.) If the check engine light doesn't light up there is a good chance the SMOG equipment has been tampered with. (And, of course, when you start the car the check engine light should not light up.)

There is a shop on Diaz Ordaz, near the intersection with O'Higgins, that for 200 pesos will check your SMOG system. They can't give you a SMOG certificate, but they can tell you if the car will SMOG and can do the necessary repair work it if the car won't SMOG.

Of course, you'll want to take the same steps you'd take in the US to be sure the car is in good working order. There are lots of places in TJ with diagnostic equipment if you're not a shade tree mechanic.

I also suggest you follow your gut instinct. If something about the car or the seller seems "fishy" I suggest moving on. There are lot of use cars for sale and as the old adage goes, "if it seems to good to be true it probably is." (Or, as I've heard about the stock market, "bears make money, bulls make money, but hogs go to slaughter.")

Let suppose you've found the car you want, paid the owner the asking price, have the "pink slip" signed over to you, have a bill of sale, and a copy of the seller's ID. What's next?

You can, of course, simply drive the car across the border and head to the DMV. (Or better yet AAA.) But, here's the rub, the car can be impounded while crossing the boarder if you don't have insurance. (And, yes, although the odds are in your favor, the CBP has indeed been known to impound cars that lack insurance.)

Here's what I suggest doing if you don't want to run any risks.

--Park the car at a secure lot in Tijuana until all the "paper work" is in order.

--Make a copy of all the paper work—just in case. Carry it with you when you cross.

--Go to the DMV, AAA, etc. Pay the fees and transfer the title into your name. (You don't need to wait for the title to arrive in the mail, the registration paper they give you is all you need.)

--If the car requires a SMOG certificate (which normally is the case) what you'll receive is a partial registration that says you can't drive the car. Don't worry.

--Now buy auto insurance. You'll only be able to get liability coverage until the insurance agent inspects the car, but liability coverage is all you need to legally cross the border and drive in California.

--Get a one day permit to drive the car that's valid for the day you plan on crossing the vehicle into the US. One of the qualifying reasons is taking a car to get a SMOG certificate. Your partial registration will allow you to get the permit, which can be obtained from the DMV, AAA, and half the Casas de Cambio on San Ysidro Blvd.

Now return to Tijuana and bring the car to the United States. Get a SMOG certificate, and finish the registration process. Go see your insurance agent and add full insurance if you so desire.

As I posted elsewhere, a few months ago I bought a used car in Tijuana using the above steps. All went well. Furthermore, those who have seen the car agree I got more for my dollar than I would have received had a bought a used car in the US.


Below are a few words and phrases that might prove helpful:

titulo limpio - clean title
titulo en mano - title in hand
placas EEUU - US license plates (implying also a US title)
pocas miles - low miles
salvage - salvage vehicle
trato - willing to deal

#2 otayBill


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Posted 16 October 2010 - 08:41 AM

Thanks Daniel for you extensive research. How cheaper is a used Tijuana car?

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