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BUYING OUR CAR IN FRANCE - MAY, 2014

I call her Xandy. Ain't she cute?
I've bought a Citroen.

That sentence feels funny in my mouth, sounds strange in my ears.

I've bought a Citroen.

I never thought that I'd say those exact words.

Shortly after arriving in France in April of this year, I began looking for a car. We'd rented a Renault Picasso at the airport in Marseilles - a vehicle properly sized to handle four loaded suitcases, two loaded carry on bags, two loaded cat carriers, and two exhausted humans who wished that they were loaded. The object of the exercise was to dump the Picasso as soon as possible to prevent the rental fees from piling up.

To begin with, it's important to understand my philosophy when it comes to buying cars. I view cars as disposable drive trains encased in metal. When the body of a car is rusted out, you're cooked. But drive trains are replaceable. So while the average Joe wants to hear a prospective purchase's motor running right away, revving it up to feel the power, I begin with a careful inspection of the body work - what's showing and what's underneath. The slightest hint of rust is carefully investigated. Scrapes and scratches are OK but dents that might hasten corrosion - or effect alignment - are deal breakers.

Once I'm satisfied that the body of a vehicle will outlast the life of a pair of cheap shoes, I go on to the mechanicals. I start the vehicle up, pop the hood, listen and look. If everything seems in order, I drive. Hard. I brake. Hard. I corner. Hard. I run over a rough patch of road if I can find one. And if all of those tests are passed, I leave the car running for a while, a good long while, parked over a clean piece of tarmac to look for any leaks.

A car that makes the cut is worth haggling over.

Did I mention price? I'm a bottom fisher. I've never paid more than $3,000 for a car. I was determined not to pay more than that in France - about 2,100 euros.

My main source of research was leboncoin.fr. It's the equivalent of craigslist in France. In fact, there is a craigslist in France, but leboncoin is the more popular. You can plug in your geographical region down to your zip code or town name, maximum mileage, range of model years, gas or diesel fuel, manual or automatic transmission, and of course price range. I opted for diesel (cheaper than gas over here), manual transmission (I love 5-speeds), a maximum of 200,000 kilometers on the odometer (125,000 miles, but we're talking diesels), kept it local, and let her rip.

Yuck. Nothing worth looking at. Busted up. Needing work. Well, my Brit friends had warned me. The French think like I do. They run their cars into the ground. Used cars, therefore, are either relatively new and expensive - starting at the equivalent of about $7,000 - or are used up beaters not worth considering.

I persisted. I expanded my geographic area. I bumped the price to 3,000 euros. And I began getting results.

I found a couple of Renault Meganes, kind of like station wagons, about 10 years old and looking good. I contacted one private owner. Already sold. Miles and I then went to a used car lot. (You remember Miles - FrangloFixit.com) Their Megane had just been sold as well - we could see it being washed up - but we found a little Renault sedan that looked and ran well. Gas instead of diesel, though. Well, we'll see.

Later that same day we cruised a series of used car lots on what locals call the South Road, leading out of Beziers towards the airport. The first stop showed great promise. Several cars seemed to fit the bill. And that's where we found the Citroen - a 1999 Xantia 2.0 L HDi turbo diesel 5-door sedan with 138,000 kilometers on the clock (86,000 miles) priced at 2,500 euros. She (All of my cars are female. I can't explain it.) was hiding behind a coating of mud along the rocker panels but her body was in fine shape, a dimple here, a bit of a scrape on the rubber of a bumper there, but nothing to be concerned about. First tests passed.

I learned that Miles had a soft spot in his heart for Xantias. Back in the days when he was on the road in sales, his employer-supplied Xantias were workhorses. To paraphrase John Cameron Swayze, they took a licking and kept on ticking. (If you don't know who Swayze is, check out this Timex commercial on YouTube.) Since Miles had driven tens of thousands of kilometers a year for several years in Xantias, I let him take the first spin. He was impressed. I took the wheel. I was impressed.

The European turbo-diesel is peppy and this Xantia, although 15 years old, was no exception. The gear box was no looser than it was entitled to be given its age. The interior would clean up nicely. All seemed in order. Sold.

The lot owner was an interesting fellow, puffed out chest, rough complexion and rough features, with his wavy, greased up, jet black hair in an oddly sculpted do. He spoke no English and seemed unfazed by the tandem that Miles and I presented. Miles told him that we would buy the Xantia. He asked how much were willing to put down. Miles suggested 5 euros. He laughed. Just to show him that I was at least partially aware of the contents of the conversation, I offered 10. We settled on 500. We'd be back in a couple of days.

In France, the car is insured, not the driver, meaning that whoever drives the car is covered. But it's the owner who buys the insurance. And the rate is based on the owner's history. I had no history in France. The first rate quote I received, from the folks who insured our house, was excessive - over 600 euros for the absolute minimum coverage. My bank wouldn't even consider covering the car. At 2.0 liters, the motor was "too powerful" for someone with no history. So I've been driving for nigh onto 50 years and a standard sedan is too powerful for me? France and bureaucracy. What to do?

I admit to a mistake. I simply accepted the high rate. I only discovered later that it's common for Americans in Europe to get a Letter of Experience from their American insurance company that most French insurers will accept. With that Letter, I might have received a 'bonus' of up to 50% off. I now have the Letter and am negotiating with my French insurance company. Even with the Letter stating that in the past 10 years I have not filed a single claim, the French broker wants more - essentially the title information on my last insured vehicle. I've asked Travelers if they can find a copy of my insurance card with the VIN and other info on it. We'll see.

I picked up the car about a week after putting down the deposit. It took a few extra days to get through the CVT (the equivalent of a state inspection) because the dealer had decided to change the serpentine belt - appreciated since a worn belt is often the cause of breakdowns - and it took some time for the belt kit to arrive. In the interim, they polished and cleaned and made her look pretty.

I've been driving the Xantia for over 300 kilometers now (just under 200 miles) and it's a joy to drive. It doesn't have all of the bells and whistles of a brand new, computer-controlled piece of machinery. But all that's needed to head down the highway is available and in working order. Xandy (pronounced zan-dee) is not too big, not too small, runs through the gears nicely, has a kick when you want to pass, and looks to be frugal on fuel.

I only wish that Xandy's French owners hadn't cut out the English section of the user manual for the CD player. I understand their reasoning, but I can't seem to find one in English on line. Well, if that's my biggest concern a month from now, I'll be fine with it.

I've stopped at the mairie (city hall) and our local gendarme has taken the info necessary to have the car registered in my name - and taken 138.50 Euros as well. I brought along a copy of my passport identity page, a copy of our electric bill showing our residence address, the old registration (called the certificat d'immatriculation or carte-gris for short), and our insurance documentation. Once the new carte-gris arrives, I take it to the local brico (hardware store) where they have a machine that turns out license plates. Yep, after all that, you get your plate at the hardware store. France, ya gotta love it.

EDIT: After filling Xandy's tank immediately after purchase, I just filled it again - three weeks and 500 miles later. 42.2 MPG! Happy camper. And AXA, the company that provides the insurance on our house, accepted my Letter of Experience and I'm paying 300 Euros annually for insurance.

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