(Reluctantly) Buying a Car in Portugal
I’ve lived outside of Canada since 2001, spending a good chunk of time in places where owning a car doesn’t make a lot of sense. My only short stint of car ownership was in 2005 when I bought a 1989 Honda Civic for $250 New Zealand dollars from a guy who was leaving the country the next day. I didn’t plan on buying a car but he was desperate and I suppose I accidentally took advantage of him. I didn’t have a car budget for my trip so threw out a ridiculous price and he took it and, up until yesterday, that’s been my only time as a car owner. The car worked perfectly for the five months I was there and I sold it onto a friend who drove it for another four years. So that was a win.
But generally… cars basically suck. They’re temperamental money pits that I have little understanding of and zero interest in. I feel really lucky to have lived in places like where I didn’t need one, but here in rural Central Portugal not having a car isn’t really a viable option. During Covid lockdown times there was nothing really happening so I was rather content to stay put. These days, things are a lot more open and there are trips to the lake to take and dinner parties to attend. Friends have been more than generous with rides, but I feel like I’m beginning to be that annoying friend who never drives, and I can’t rely on others to chauffeur me around everywhere. I should be offering rides to others instead of always counting on them – it’s payback time!
The reason I hadn’t already bought a car is because I never really knew whether I was coming or going. I’ve been passing through this part of Portugal each year for several months at a time with this vague idea of buying land, but I’ve never gotten around to actually doing it. I didn’t want to buy a car just to have it sit around while I went back to Rwanda for work, so I kept delaying and delaying. Well, I’ve finally committed to buying land here and so a car was the next obvious purchase. I’ll need something to shuttle around purchases and materials as I set the place up to be livable over winter. Plus, a car will allow me to have some independence and feel like a real person who can go where I want to go. So once I agreed on purchasing this piece of land, I knew that my next task would be to reluctantly buy some wheels.
What I Was Looking For
Knowing very little about cars (and caring about them even less) I didn’t have a long list of ‘must haves’ for my new ride. Ideally I was looking for something small and fuel-efficient, but I had also flip-flopped a bit about whether to get a pickup truck, a van, or a hatchback.
A few people had recommended a pickup, especially for the early days when I’d be hauling a lot of stuff around. There are some awesome, easy to fix, old-school ones around here with a sweet wooden cargo bed, but they generally only have room for one other passenger. Five-seater pickups exist, but they’re quite long and I’m a crap driver so I wanted something reasonably compact. A pickup would have been great for moving things onto the land, but I felt like I’d rather pay for deliveries (or hire friends with trucks to help out) whenever the need arose. A pickup, with their high ground clearance, would have been great for maneuvering on the often treacherous dirt paths that everyone here seems to live down, but it didn’t seem like the most practical option for the longer term.
I’d also briefly considered some sort of a small van because of the advantage of being able to kit it out and live in it. It might have been useful as a ghetto house for my first little while on the land and they can also double as a camper van for any future travels. Plus, besides operating as a sort of house on wheels, having a van would have also been good for hauling goods and materials around. But, for me, vans are too large and bulky and if I got one without windows at the back I probably would have crashed it immediately. If the land didn’t already have a mostly livable barn on it I might have considered a van more seriously, but since I didn’t need somewhere to sleep, I crossed that off my list as well.
In the end, I decided that I wanted the smallest hatchback-style car that I could find. I remembered borrowing a friend’s car a few years ago in Canada and enjoying driving it more than I had expected because it was so small. I can’t stand those giant SUV-type vehicles and much prefer something small and zippy. Luckily, this part of Portugal seems like the land where 90’s hatchbacks go to die and I’d noticed a whole bunch of small, older (and presumably cheaper) cars that seemed to be a good fit for me. I was a bit worried about the ground clearance of a small car and whether I’d scratch the underside into oblivion as I negotiated dirt tracks, but many of my friends here have small cars and they seem to do ok. The fuel efficiency, ease of driving, and the fact that these cars are common and cheap to fix were all what led me to try to find a small hatchback.
How I Found My Car
As I’ve probably made very clear, I am not into cars at all and I really didn’t want to buy one. I was in no way excited about the prospects of car shopping. Every time I even thought about looking for a car, a little piece of my soul died. I was flooded with anxiety and just didn’t want to think about it. I’d sent a couple of messages on Facebook to people selling vehicles or saying what I wanted to buy, but none of that led to anything. I even looked at a few buy and sell sites (OLX is quite popular) but I knew that people often didn’t respond to questions and that it was mostly done in Portuguese so I usually just browsed without ever contacting anyone. Plus, I don’t know anything about cars so I had no idea what might make a good choice. I was basically overwhelmed and way out of my depth.
With all of this in mind, I decided to ask a friend’s son to see if he’d be interested in helping me find a car. I wanted him to do the online research, find a few options, and then we’d take a look at any of the top contenders together. Basically, I decided that there’s really not much point me looking for a car because I have no idea what to even look for. So my idea was to hire someone who does.
In the end he was too busy, but another friend stepped up and was able to help. He’d contacted his mechanic who had a couple of Opel Corsas for sale. I’d actually seen these cars around town and it was the exact car I’d had in mind to buy, so that was pretty lucky. We looked at two – one was a diesel engine Opel Corsa from 1999 that was listed for €1,500. It looked ok to me and it was in a price range that I deemed acceptable, but right at the top end of my budget. I was keen but when we opened the sunroof there was a crazy amount of rust that the mechanic said was also a surprise to him. He was selling both cars on behalf of another customer of his but that one was out due to how manky it looked. A leaky sunroof wouldn’t be pleasant.
The second car on his lot was also an Opel Corsa but a petrol engine and from 1997. It was selling for €400 because it has a couple of dents in it and the paint on the roof is sort of messed up. The previous owner just wanted to sell it as is, though the mechanic had recently fixed it up. I was initially nervous about buying a car for so cheap, but a car of any price can screw up at any time, and it was an appealing idea to spend less so that I’d be taking less of an overall financial risk. My budget was €1,500 so, in theory, I’ll stash €1,100 away for repairs and any nasty car-related surprises. (In reality, I’ve already spent that on tools, a GoPro, and a bunch of other things I’ll need – oh well). I was happy with the €400, slightly bashed up car and my friend approved of it, so that was that!
For his expert car-buying and driving-me-around services, I paid my friend an hourly rate plus fuel and he found a car, checked it over, drove me around to get insurance and pay tax, and even drove the car back for me because I was too much of a coward. Money very well spent! My advice – if you don’t know anything about cars, find someone who does to help you out.
Paperwork, Inspections, and Other Fun Things
In Portugal you’re required to have your vehicle inspected each year where they check the car for any issues (including even minor things like rips in the upholstery) and if there are some things to fix then you have a month to sort it out before submitting for re-inspection. This is called the ‘MOT’ and it costs €35 per year. Portuguese people seem to drive their cars on and on forever. They keep vehicles in very good condition and, while driving a 23-year-old car might seem weird to people in North America, in Portugal it’s the norm. Newer cars are crazy expensive and so continually repairing old vehicles is definitely the done thing. There’s also an annual vehicle tax but, since it was paid by the previous owners, I’m not sure what the process is. I guess I’ll find out next July… joy! I’ve been told it’ll be around €40.
In the case of my car, the MOT had expired but we agreed that the mechanic would take it for the annual inspection (and pay for it), fix any minor issues that came up (or let me know if there were major issues and I could decide what to do), and then sell the car to me once all of this was done. It turns out that the mechanic is a really nice guy and very popular with foreigners in the area (if you live in the Fundao area and want a good, English speaking mechanic, reach out and I’ll send his details). I thought this was a pretty sweet deal on such a cheap vehicle, so I was sold! He didn’t want a deposit or anything and the whole process was nice and laid back. When we collected the car he even came along with us to help sort out the ownership changeover and (€65) and to get me signed up with insurance (€200 per year with Allianz, including breakdown and glass cover) which was really nice.
One slightly sticky paperwork issue I still have to figure out is how to transfer my driving license from a Canadian one to a Portuguese one. I’m told that this is supposed to be done within three months of arrival, but I didn’t manage it because I had to get paperwork from Canada first. But word on the street is that there’s a mysterious former police office who works inside a tobacco selling kiosk in Fundao who can (for the low, low price of €40) make the license transfer happen without any issues. I’ve met this man and he assures me it’s possible, but right now but the office I need is apparently closed until October due to Covid fun.
My evil master plan is to drive around with my Canadian passport and license along with an international driving license that’s valid until the end of this year. So, until October, I guess I shall attempt to pass myself off as a tourist.
Other Bits and Bobs
So I’ve got a car and I’ve been zipping around the area getting more and more confident each time. I’ve even successfully negotiated some small roundabouts which are beastly things we don’t have many of in Canada. My friend sent me a website with some roundabout best practice instructions so I’ll have a look at that before I tackle a drive into town where I will encounter the dreaded two-lane roundabouts. I also need to get signed up for a card that tracks you on toll roads and takes the money out automatically. I mostly plan on avoiding toll roads because they’re mega expensive here, but they’re convenient so I’m sure I’ll cave soon enough.
But all in all, I’m quite happy with my little car purchase. I was reluctant, but now I’m rather pleased with the whole thing!