We plan to venture out of Santiago while we’re in Chile, and we need our own vehicle to do so. Renting would be cost prohibitive and restrictive, and so we opted to purchase our own car. Purchasing a car under normal conditions at home can be stressful, and purchasing a vehicle as a foreigner in another country takes stress to a much higher level.
Prior to arriving in Chile, I made contact with a service that guides foreigners through the process of purchasing a car. They won’t do it for you, but they’ll give you some guidance and contacts to navigate the Chilean socialist bureaucracy.
Getting the RUT
The first step in purchasing a car as a foreigner is to procure a temporary RUT, which is a sort of unique ID that allows a non-citizen to purchase and register property and pay taxes.
Securing a RUT requires going to an official notaria, which to me seems like a blend of a US DMV office and some government tax office. I was instructed to go to the notaria downtown, not wait in line, and enter the office and ask for a particular woman by name.
Simply getting to the notaria was a trial. I took my first Santiago Uber ride (a service which apparently operates in a gray area of legality). The thirty minute trip to this unknown destination downtown was made more stressful by the fact that I hadn’t yet put my international cell phone to the test outside of the house. If the Uber deposited me at the notaria and my cell was out, I’d have to figure out how to catch a taxi, communicate my address to the driver, and hope I didn’t get ripped off.
I arrived at the notaria. I took a moment to test my phone, and it turned out I had service. That was one stressor off my plate. Now to enter the office.
I was specifically instructed to bypass the line and to ask for a particular woman by name or to walk directly to her desk at the far right of the row of attendants. My first surprise was that there wasn’t a discernible line. There were people crowded outside and people crowded inside, and I couldn’t tell who was next to be served.
I surveyed the situation for a moment, but I couldn’t read signs in the windows or even determine which of the two doors was the entrance. I weaved may way to a door on the left side. I opened the door to enter, and I was met with a forearm in my chest as a man inside stopped me in the doorway. He was dressed in street clothes, but he seemed to have an official capacity. He sputtered a few sentences in Spanish that I didn’t understand, but I could tell the sentiment was something along the lines of “What do you think you’re you doing?”.
I felt all eyes of the crowd that I had bypassed pressed into the back of my head. I said, “Yo necesito (the woman’s name).” I didn’t have a better way of asking for the woman, but the man understood what I meant. He briefly glared at me, and then he asked for my passport.
I held up my passport, which he took. He motioned me to take a few steps back. I watched intently as he walked my precious passport around the counter. A minute later he returned and directed me into the office to see the woman I had requested. She didn’t speak a word of english, but she clearly knew why I was there. She seemed to be a specialist in helping foreigners with this process, and the private service I had contracted had somehow given me direct access to her.
She guided me through some Spanish paperwork, captured my signature and thumbprint, bounced me to a cashier and then to another clerk. After a whirlwind fifteen minutes, I left with my receipt and the assumption that I had accomplished what I set out to do, get a RUT number attached to my identify. I didn’t leave with the RUT number itself, but it would be sent to me in a few days.
Finding a Car
I opted to buy a car from a private buyer, not a dealer. Based on what I’d read, especially around how the ownership is transferred in person at the notaria, it’s more ideal to purchase directly from the current owner. As a result, the process required finding vehicles for sale in the city, arranging for an appointment to inspect the car, and, if I liked it, arranging for a mechanical inspection prior to agreeing to purchase.
The car service warned me about the tight used car market in Santiago, and I quickly realized it firsthand. The used car inventory on the market is slim, and it’s made more slim for us since we were seeking out a Toyota 4×4. There aren’t many to start with, and they are highly sought after. Of the dozens of Toyotas we attempted to evaluate for purchase, I only managed to get in front of two sellers.
The service I hired help vet the vehicles over the phone and then set an appointment with the private sellers, Chilean individuals who, of course, mostly speak Spanish. Once the appointment was set, I had to make the trip, meet the seller, attempt to communicate in Spanish, and inspect the vehicle at their home. It got awkward as I fumbled through the encounter and inspection. In the second inspection, unruly dogs made the encounter especially chaotic.
Making A Deal
After one near miss in which I almost purchased a 4Runner that had inoperable cruise control, a fact discovered in the mechanical inspection, I agreed to buy a different 4Runner. There was no room to negotiate as there were two prospective buyers coming right after me. I agreed to pay the sellers asking price pending an inspection. I had a mechanic there within thirty minutes to complete the mechanical inspection, and we had an agreement.
Finalizing the Purchase
The final part of the transaction to purchase the vehicle is not too dissimilar from the exchange of property in America, except it seems the only option is for both parties to appear in person, sign a legal contract, and execute the title transfer.
The seller, a representative of the service I hired, and I met at a different notaria in Providencia commune. The representative handled much of the process when interacting with the clerks. He clearly had an inside track to get the paperwork processed. He arrived on a small motorcycle, collected my passport and the sellers ID card, and he went alone into the notoria. The notoria has a headcount limit due to COVID, so the Spanish-speaking seller and I stood outside in the cold, exchanging little phrases and looks back and forth for about fifteen minutes.
The seller was waved in first to sign his side of the contract. He returned to the city street, and then I was called in. I was presented with several document in Spanish and instructed to sit at the clerk’s desk. I never spoke to the clerk, and I don’t actually recall she ever looked at me. The representative walked me through the documents and showed me where to sign and place my thumbprint.
After some processing and my payment of $200,000 CLP, I had a signed contract.
Getting the Seller His Money
It did not occur to me until after I agreed to purchase the car that I did not have a way to actually pay the seller tens of millions of Chilean pesos. I simply don’t have them or have ready access to them. All of my money is in US dollars sitting in US banks. Transferring the dollars across an international border, converting them into CLP, and depositing them into the sellers Chilean account is not without difficulty, expense, and time. I researched several wire transfer startups that might help, Remitly and Wise, and neither was going to be easy or cheap. With both services, I was going to have to pay the seller in installments, paying a percentage every 24 hours up to the allowable limit. Not ideal.
In a break of good luck, it turns out the seller was most interested in selling his 4Runner to me because I was holding American dollars. The CLP currency is on shaky ground, at risk of losing value rapidly. My perceived weakness as an unfamiliar and foreign buyer in the Chilean used car market had become a strength. The seller saw me as a golden ticket to banking a bunch of dollars. He provided wiring instructions for a U.S. domestic wire transfer to a bank in New York affiliated with a Chilean bank. This development made paying him a breeze and saved me a couple thousand dollars. It was a huge relief.
Picking Up the Car
I thought most of the stress was behind me after completing the wire transfer. I arranged to pick up the car at the seller’s house, about 25 minutes away from my own house. The Santiago traffic can be intense, and the driving behavior is aggressive. Much more aggressive and chaotic than I’ve ever experienced in America.
There’s not much honking and hollering in the streets, but drivers look out for their own interest and time. Single lanes unexpectedly become double lanes without lane markings as cars push forward into open space. Passing slower vehicles on city streets is expected. Many cross sections have yield signs, not stop signs, and so rolling through intersections is expected. Motorcycles split the cars in lanes and otherwise wind through traffic. Drivers make turns out of center lanes marked for traffic to go straight. As long as a car is the first or second to run a red light, it seems permissible to do so. Street peddlers sell food, candy, masks, and other items in stopped traffic.
In preparation for dealing with my first drive through this scene, I had carefully planned out my route home from the sellers house. I studied it on Google Maps, determining which winding route to take across the busy city that kept me off the heavily trafficked roads. I had a plan all set until this happened.
My plan was shot. The seller kindly pointed to the yellow light and gave me directions to a gas station, but it was in a direction I didn’t plan for. Getting gas for the first time was an experience by itslef. Turns out gas stations (this one at least) are full service, so I had to figure my way through the conversation with the attendant, who not only pumped the gas but washed the windshield and windows.
In finding my way home, I made a couple wrong turns. I found that one road I planned to use ended unexpectedly, and so I had to make an unexpected turn. Once I couldn’t make my way over in traffic and had to circle back. It was, in the end, fun and rather uneventful. It was also highly inefficient as I traveled in 40 minutes what an Uber driver could travel in 25.
The Car for Our South American Adventure
We purchased a 2013 4Runner. Truth be told, I was really angling to buy one of the Toyota Land Cruiser Prados or an FJ Cruiser made in 2015 or later. The vehicles aren’t sold in North America, and the thought of cruising down to Patagonia in an exotic overland vehicle had captured my imagination. But, the market was too tight at a reasonable price to realize that dream. I’ll settle with having the reliable and rugged 4Runner and saving an extra $10k by not buying the premium Land Cruiser.