I was a teaching assistant in Martinique through the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) and in the package, they recommend purchasing a car. The first year, I didn’t buy one and I lived the farthest south on the island in Sainte-Anne. I had planned on buying one, but in the end didn’t have the money or the standard driving know-how.
I won’t say I was isolated but I was quite dependent upon the kindness of assistants who had cars—especially on evenings and weekends when there weren’t any taxis. I did occasionally miss out but I also met a lot of locals willing to lend a hand while hitch hiking.
When I returned for the second year in September 2012, I had no intention of going more than a day without a car. My partner, Tom, and I pooled our money together and we got a car that gave us not one major problem for the seven months (well, that didn’t result from our own neglect). I can honestly say that our car was never an excuse for missing a day of work.
French bureaucracy for buying a car can be daunting—even more so if you’ve never bought a car before and don’t speak the language. So, to help out here are some tips for navigating the vehicle purchase:
Look online, but also tell everyone you meet that you’re looking for a car.
A lot of business is conducted via word-of-mouth in Martinique, so learn this quickly. If you throw it out there that you’re looking for a fiable car with an x€ budget, chances are someone you speak to has a friend whose cousin is selling or is a mechanic or can fix one up for you…
You should not buy a Vespa/scooter/motorcycle (in most circumstances).
I will admit that I thought this too. I’d never been on a two-wheeled vehicle but a lot of what I read gave me the impression that this island was France first. It’s not. It is a Caribbean island first, and while the infrastructure is much more developed than most other islands in the region, unless you have extensive two-wheel experience, a scooter/motorcycle is not safe.
Not a week goes by where there isn’t some crazy story of a motorcyclist death or grave injury.
Consider that the French have a reputation for being bad drivers and that Caribbean drivers are thought of as risk-takers. Now combine the two, add in winding roads with sudden changes in gradient, and you will realize why this can be dangerous.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend using this type of vehicle to traverse the island. Between theft and unpaved roads, it’s a recipe for disaster. If you live in the south (where it is relatively flat), you plan on only using it to go to the beach, and feel comfortable on a two-wheeler, then it’s probably okay—but soyez prudent.
Stretch your budget as far as you can.
Don’t play fast and loose with your life here. Buy something reliable from someone reliable. We bought our car for 1300€ from a man who works maintenance at the Mairie de Lamentin. It was more than we were looking to spend, but the car never let us down (until the end – more about that later) and he never let us down. Any time we called with an issue he was there to help or found us someone who could.
I know of assistants who bought cars for 5-600€ and they ended up spending double on repairs, were often en panne and in the end, sold for a loss.
If you don’t know how to drive standard (like me), buying an automatic is an option though expensive and not always that easy to find. I know two assistants who bought automatics somewhere in the realm of 2-3000€. Don’t worry about your licenses – if you are foreign you do not need a manual license to drive a manual car in France (for no more than 1 year).
Tom taught me how to drive a manual car when we were in Martinique the second time. Some people take lessons. I rented a manual car in Guadeloupe last year after having another assistant show me what to do. It was really stressful but I had no serious incidents. It’s up to you whether you want to learn by fire, but remember: safety first.
If you take care of the car, you can often recuperate a good chunk of it when you sell it off before you leave. You will almost always save on getting a rental.
Don’t buy a car, rent one.
People in Martinique make a business out of long-term rentals and this is definitely a good option for assistants.
For a long term rental, typically the owner of the car takes care of the insurance and checks in monthly for maintenance. This is a good option while you’re looking for a car or if you don’t have enough money to buy one up-front.
Be sure to negotiate a good price if you plan on keeping the car for the seven months. It should be much less than the weekly or monthly rate would be.
Share the cost with other assistants.
This is a good way to get a better car than you can afford by yourself. The downside is that you have to share it and this can often lead to some contention. A few assistants felt that in sharing they didn’t get to do as much as they would have liked, or all of the things they would have liked to do. Others realized they got to do more than if they hadn’t had one at all.
Set ground rules before you buy car. For example, whoever works the farthest gets priority, how the weekends are spent, etc.
In this instance, keep up with your tutor and teachers at your school to help reduce your reliance on the car to get to work.
Make sure the paperwork is right.
You want to buy a car that has the contrôle technique, which is the equivalent of a British MOT, Used Vehicle Information Package in Ontario. On an advertisement, it will say ‘ct ok’ – meaning they have done the CT and it doesn’t have any major problems. If the advertisement says ‘en état’ it means that the car is likely not running.
Keep in mind that passing the CT just means that there are no major safety concerns. Be sure to ask about what was wrong before the “contre-visite” (if there was one) as it may give you a clue about the any future problems you may come across.
The car must have the carte grise, which are the ownership papers. Don’t buy a car without it!
When you hand over your money, make sure that the previous owner writes “Carte Grise Barrée” and gives it to you, along with a Certificat de Cession, which proves that they have sold car and absolves them of any liability if you crash the car or abandon it.
From there, you need to register it at the Préfecture closest to where you live. You will receive a temporary carte grise and then the official one in the mail.
If more than one of you is buying the car together, then you may have more than one name on the ownership papers. This is what my partner and I did. What we didn’t realize when I left Martinique before he did was that both of our signatures also had to be on the certificat de cession when he sold it.
You must have insurance in Martinique. A good thing is that once one person is insured, anyone can drive the car. However, in an accident where the driver of your car is at fault and not on the insurance you may not be compensated for damages to your vehicle.
If anyone you are buying your car with has any years of being insured in France, can prove they have had their license for more than 3 years, and/or have been insured as a primary driver with no claims, then they will receive a “bonus” which results in a lower insurance premium.
Anyone working for Education Nationale (including assistants) can receive a good rate on insurance from MAIF, though I never used them. Our insurance cost about 180€ for 3 months (or 300€ for 6 months). Don’t think that this is average! Tom has a bonus and was the primary driver. I was added later as a secondary driver but I was able to prove that I’ve had a license for 7 years. The car had a 1.4L engine. I do remember people averaging 60-80€ per month in insurance, all the way up to 100€ per month. It depends on the car, your license, and whether you have a bonus.
Do the bloody safety checks!
Cars in Martinique undergo a lot more stress than cars from countries assistants typically come from. Be sure to check the quality of brakes and suspension, as those take the most wear.
Try not to buy a car with a lot of mileage. Look for something that has put on about 10-15,000km per year. Ours was a 1997 Opel Astra with about 115,000km on it.
Read a lot online about the car you’re thinking of buying: typical problems, reliability, gas efficiency, etc. French cars (i.e. Renault, Citroën, Peugeot) that are small will be cheaper to fix because of the size and availability of parts.
Don’t neglect your car. We didn’t do any work on the car for the seven months we owned it, and put about 10,000km on the car. We rarely checked the oil and water, and ignored things that we thought were just regular sounds of an aging car. In May, two weeks before I was meant to leave, we had to fix triangles, ball-joints, thermo-contacts…and the list goes on. We put the car back in working order, but it cost us more than regular maintenance would have.
So don’t be that assistant who has to get out of your car at every roundabout to bang the radiator with a tire iron, flips their car into a ditch, or has to make 700€ worth of repairs instead of going on vacation. True stories.
Final note: Be safe. And if you don’t know a damn thing about cars, find someone to help you – another assistant, your tutor, a teacher (especially if you’re at a lycée professionnel).
Anyone else have tips for a buying a car in the Départements Outre-Mer? Did I miss anything?