Buying a Used Car in Mexico … Do’s & Don’ts

Sept. 19, 2017

Let’s begin with a few general principles:   Mexican used cars pricing can seem to be all over the map, unless you check out Kelley Blue book values from the USA & check Mercado Libre prices for similar models across Mexico.   Next, Mexican used cars don’t lose value like United States or Canada-sold used cars.    Then consider that even while the MXN peso dropped 50% in value from $13 MXN, falling to $18MXN : 1 USD,  like Mexican real estate, the older Mexican cars purchased at $13 MXN: $1USD car prices have not risen the 50% that  one might expect from the MXN peso losing value.  This can mean that Mexican used cars can cost less than the same US car.

Still, talk is cheap … What’s possible in the real world? …  For us,  our most recent personal purchase of a very good condition 6-year-old used Nissan Altima came in at just $90,000 pesos (about $5,000 USD) with just 50,000 miles.

Do’s & Don’ts:
Sharp people seek insider tips on how to value and buy a used car in their local market – which bring us to gently used cars, being sold by 40-60 yr old Middle Class women.  General used cars are likely to be beaten up by topes (our ubiquitous speed bumps), randomly appearing batches (potholes) that weren’t there last week, as well as the damaging vagaries of a tropical climate,  hot sun and proximity-to-the-sea marine influences.  ouija_board … So, why seek out gently used cars, being sold by 40-60 yr old Middle Class women?  … Typically, well-educated 40-60 yr old Middle Class women drive conservatively,  they know where the batches & topes are, and they take good care of their vehicles … plus, one more beneficial quirk:   There’s an old 1960’s maxim quietly running in their minds:

“Sell your car before it hits 100,000 km “, because supposedly
“Cars with over 100,00 km have lots of parts that break.”…

That maxim made a lot sense back in the 1960’s – 1970’s, when US cars were notorious for starters, timing chains, automatic transmissions, radiators, brake master cylinders, ball joints  & alternators ALL failing between 60,000 – 120,000 miles. … But … due to competition~pressure from Japanese & German better-made cars,  pretty much all cars (except VWs) now run very reliably, with few problems, between 60,000 – 120,000 miles.

This means that gently-driven, well-maintained  Mexican cars being sold by 40-60 yr old Middle Class Mexican women can be EXCELLENT BUYS … especially since they are prematurely selling a car (they think is going to start breaking down) … as they forget they bought with $13 MXN pesos,  and are now now selling it at the ‘çheaper’ $18 MXN peso prices.
pink car

More Do’s & Don’ts:
While most ordinary buyers are not qualified to do serious mechanical checks of cars, if you are buying a well maintained 6 – 8 year-old gently-used car from a Middle Class woman, then the car likely does not have serious hidden problems.   Within those limits, an average person can still check out the body (for prior wrecks), the interior, and the tires …  plus consider doing simple motor oil & transmission oil dipstick checks, and exhaust system checks.  … Aka …

How to be an Above Average Used Car Buyer

Know some tricks … Do your research … Take your time … Good deals are waiting to be found for those armed with a little patience & some good insights.    … First, never feel forced to buy any used car.  … Be ready to walk from any deal …. Like dating, there are lots of fish in the sea. … Search … and wait … for the right one.

Start by picking a few models that you like,  get preliminary pricing online with the Kelley Blue Book, and Autoplaza & Mercado Libre websites. (See links at the end of this article).  In Kelley Blue Book, use the Private Party used car pricing.     With your “blue book”, Autoplaza & Mercado Libre values in hand, you can get a good feel for the range of upper & lower prices for the kinds cars you are interested in.   We especially like Nissans as an economical & reliable option, with Toyotas & Hondas as more expensive but still-viable options.

Common Effects of Our Harsh Yucatan Environment

Yucatecan roads & some Yucatecan driving habits cause accumulated hard wear on local cars.    Unexpected topes and random baches take a serious toll on suspension parts and tires.    Heavy stop-and-go Merida driving, especially with “jackrabbit” starts and stops, is very hard on motors, brakes, transmissions and clutches.    These factors combine to make it really worthwhile to do some unusual things as integral parts of you inspecting your used car, before plunking down the cash.

EXIF/JPEG image with thumb

 How to Check-out a Used Car

Many private party used cars are listed in local newspapers like the Diario de Yucatan,  plus online sources like Tacolist, Craigslist, Mercado Libre & Autoplaza.  Once you call for a cita (appointment) to see the car, it’s time to review a list of quick and easy things to look for when evaluating the health of your next car:

  • Many problems are difficult to see in evening light, or under street lights.  The best looks come in the daytime, in good light.
  • Check the Fit and Finish – where the doors & quarter-panels should have no rust, and the doors, hood & trunk lid should align well with the body …  having a constant”reveal” ~ a gap of the same width between the body & the door.
  • Use the magnet trick on fenders & quarter panels to identify plastic body-filler or fiberglass repairs from previous wrecks.
  • Look at the paint color in the trunk and under the hood, compared to the exterior color for post-wreck repainting issues.
  • While in the trunk, also look under the mat and around the spare tire for stressed metal, cracked paint, broken glass, rust or mud.    Even careful detailing by body shops generally does not reach the area around the spare tire.
  • classic_car_tour_of_cuba-1
  • Look under the hood for evidence of previous wrecks, including rusted or bent metal, spider-cracked paint, non-matching paint, etc.
  • While under the hood:  Pull out the oil and transmission dipsticks to inspect for signs of burning (roasted or heavily discolored metal is not a good sign),  blackened fluid,  gasoline-smells in the oil, and odd smelling fluid          …..       (as musty or moldy smelling transmission fluids) are a bad sign.
  • Open the oil filler cap and use your rag to wipe up-inside the valve cover with your rag-covered finger.
    • Heavy gunk or burned-black gunk or smelly gunk is not good, as it is evidence of running too hot for too long & without sufficient oil changes.
    • Greyish or whitish gunk is really not good, as it indicates the mixture of coolant+oil emulsion, which in turn indicates a blown head gasket.
  • When you pull the transmission dip-stick, smell the fluid. It should smell new – not musty, not funky, not burned.
  • Open the cap on the brake fluid reservoir.
    • The brake fluid should be clear and colorless, and smell nice.
    • Dark fluid or rusty fluid or musty brake fluid is not good – but … these are not deal breakers, but instead, they’re usually indications of easily repaired problems …  Problems that can give you some price-negotiating leverage.

Exterior Finish & Paint Issues

If you observe different shades of paint between the trunk or hood interior and the car’s exterior, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Repainting can be okay … especially in the Tropics.
Unless a car has been religiously garaged, repainting of the roof, hood & trunk lid can be expected on older used cars to fix the common effects of our hot tropical sun.

Examine the paint surface by moving your head to see reflecting angles and grazing angles to reveal any subtle dents or ripples,  dust particles in the re-painted areas, puddling,   differences in gloss (frequent because many back-yard Mexican body shops do not clear-coat their re-painted areas),   depth of color & oxidation.  … Focus your attention on the roof, hood, fenders, doors, and the trunk lid.   A sharp, good quality paint job can be as good as the factory paint job.   Cheap paint jobs cost as little as to $500 – $1,000 USD, but artificially add $2.000-$3,000 to the value of the car, but often the cheap-o paint jobs do not hold up in our Tropical sun.   Why?  Our strong Tropical sun with lots of UV light, oxidizes even good paint jobs after 6-10 years, so … many good used cars have been at least partially repainted here on their trunks, hoods & roofs.

What Else?

You might have noticed that we left out all the obvious stuff like checking headlights, turn signals, air conditioning, brake lights, windshield wipers, the radio/stereo, door handles and window controls …. Demonstrate that  switches and motors function smoothly,  … Do the seats move properly,   …  seat belts present and working,   … Is the driver’s seat broken-down … Are their odd odors in the car … or that it smells like a forest full of pine-trees (air fresheners that mask problems) … Consider if the windshield is heavily pitted (glaring in the sun),  … checking all the driver’s seat controls & switches are working … Sit in the back seat and check out the little things there that only passengers see … AND … CHECK that the seller has the original Dealer’s invoice (Factura is mandatory) … and it’s good to have the owner’s manual, especially it it’s one that has the original sale documentation sticker or stamp, to prove that the car is not stolen.

In that vein,  if you decide to buy: Check that the car’s NIR  ( aka VIN …Vehicle Identification Number in English) matches the NIR ~VIN listed on the official Dealer’s factura & on the state registration document.

Paying Yourself:   The Inspection Fun Continues:

A quick & effective exhaust system inspection is your next task:  Start the motor, and  block the tailpipe tightly with your hand covered by your rag … with the motor running.   The motor should bog down or threaten to stall out, and there should be no chuffing nor whistling sounds coming from the muffler or exhaust piping.    Even if the motor only coughs a little when the exhaust is completely blocked by your rag,  there might be small leaks.

Check for hidden chuffing  sounds (exhaust leaks) by having one person to block the exhaust pipe, while the other person walks back & forth past both sides of the car, bending over to hear any exhaust leaks.   Again, like brake fluid problems, exhaust leaks are not a deal-breaker, but they do give the buyer added price negotiation leverage.

Next, note the tires condition.   If you do not know local tire prices, (typically $60 USD – $300 USD per tire),  and your potential car needs tires, check out tire prices to have an idea of what a new set of good quality tires cost for that vehicle.

Mexico’s Twist on Tires

Older tires with lots of very good tread can still have serious tread separation or belt crawling issues, due to tope and bache damage, so look for damage and surface irregularities.   These problems rarely occur in Canada or the USA, so we tend not to remember to check for these problems.

When looking at tires, also check the shocks and struts for fluid leakage by looking for oily or dust-trapped-in-oil-streaking on the struts & shocks.  Next, check out the shocks performance:  Rhythmically and vigorously bounce each bumper’s corner, pumping it up & down, up & down, up & down.     If all is well, each corner should bounce~dip just once more …  and come to a gentle stop after you stop jouncing the suspension. … Extra bounces or squeaking are not good. …  Again, these are NOT deal-breakers,  but add to your price negotiation leverage …   classic car2

e.g.  More than a full bounce (more than a partial or damped up-down cycle) means the car has likely strut problems on the front or shock absorber problems on the rear of vehicles with a solid rear axle. … If the car has four-wheel independent suspension, then more than a partial bounce on the rear could also mean strut problems, which can be expensive ($500 USD of parts & labor).   Shock absorber problems are less expensive repairs.  Still, neither shocks nor strut replacement problems are deal breakers, but yet more price negotiation leverage.

If you feel particularly adventurous …  get down on your knees at each front corner and inspect the CV joint’s rubber boots.     Torn boots means either simple boot replacement or expensive entire axle replacement, depending on how much grit entered the torn boot.    If it is a recent tear on a non-beach car, then the axle’s bearings can  still be in good shape. …  If you feel exceptionally adventurous, wipe the inside of the torn boot with your finger, and then rub the grease between your thumb and forefinger to check for grit.  …   If there’s no grit in the grease, that’s a good thing. …  If there is a lot of grit,   or if you hear clicking   or grinding   when you drive the car through an extreme right-hand or left-hand turn – or if it makes noise while going over a tope,    the car likely needs a new axle … which leads to:

Test Drive the Car

Have the seller drive you somewhere for you to do the test drive. … On the way, discreetly notice how the driver drives …  how he~she treats the car.   Pay special attention to how they go over topes,   how the driver acts at stops and starts,   and whether he~she avoids bumps and potholes.    Many short trips mean a lot of wear on the starter and brakes, and also means an exhaust system and a motor that do not heat up to full operating temperatures.     Fullly hot temperatures burn off condensed water from the exhaust, and that means less exhaust-system rust.    If you are lucky, you hit the jackpot & find a single owner who commutes to Cancun or Chetumal, so that almost all the miles are wonderfully gentle highway miles.   Why?  40,000 rough street miles in the city can be equal to 100,000 highway miles on a car’s mechanical condition.

When considering the value of the car, always remember to ask about & consider the single owner versus multiple owners issue.   Because all prior sales of the car are handwritten on the back of the original Dealer’s invoice (the Factura), it’s easy to tell if the current owner is the original buyer… Single owner cars are generally worth more, going back to whether the car was treated gently … or “driven hard & put away wet” .

Continuing with the test drive:   Notice how smooth acceleration (no hesitations and no flat-spots) is evidence that the owner used a good fuel system cleaner like Techron ($9 USD per bottle in Yucatan) every 4-5 tankfuls, keeping pumps, injectors, and emissions sensors and valves clean. After time, good maintenance translates to a clean fuel & emissions control system.   …  Remember when you are test driving, drive with the windows open on both sides of the car.    A car in good condition will exhibit no rattles or squeaks going over a rough street or topes. …  We simply can’t hear these problems when the windows are closed.

Finally, beach area cars should never be a first choice for buying a used car, due to salt and rust issues.  If you are considering a car that has been kept or driven at the beach, be sure to investigate these issues thoroughly.

These above tips are a starting point and going through them will teach you a lot about a car.    The list above is not meant to be complete, but it does include enough “insider’s tricks” to give readers a foundation for checking out a used car without touching a wrench,    without getting dirty, or putting the car on a lift. …  Even in the Yucatan, cars that have less than 30,000 to 40,000 miles and are less than four years old should generally have NO serious mechanical problems, and they may not need an experienced mechanic’s inspection. …. Older or higher mileage cars should definitely be checked out by a qualified mechanic before making any offer.

old bus

You’ve Found the Car You Want… Now What?

Plan to be firm. … Be prepared to walk at any point.   … If the seller is asking an outrageous price and won’t budge,  start to walk away, tentatively.    … Make it clear that you have cash in hand. …   Bring a printout of the KBB page or Mercado Libre page for that car model, to show the seller an “official” price, giving your offer credibility.

Note that your detailed, prolonged, throrough inspection likely has already put your seller a bit off-balance, uneasy that you have found problems they were not aware-of, setting them up to lower the “lowest price” they already had in mind.

As you see problems during your inspection, gently call them out to the seller.   This establishes credibility as a saavy buyer, and it subtly gradually gets the buyer to realize that their “baby” is not as perfect as they imagined. … Keep your tone factual and pleasant. … We don’t want to put the seller on the defensive.   Instead we want to build momentum for proposing acceptable lower prices.

Ask to see the original Dealer Invoice (the Factura) & explain up front that you have cash in hand, & do your good thorough inspection.     This shows that you mean business, and it proves that you are not some naco fresh off his milpa.  … It also shows you are also not some greenhorn or arrogant gringo with a walletful of easy cash … not someone scheming to cheat the seller with a low-ball insincere offer.  Credibility matters.

What About Documents and Paperwork?

Speaking of documents, it is important to know that cars sold in Mexico do not to have a Title issued by a State or Provincial government.    Instead, the original bill of sale ~Dealer invoice~ , a factura, functions as the title for Mexican cars.  Original facturas are printed on special official dealer invoice paper (pictured here).

Factura del Coche
Facturas also have an official Hacienda logo in the lower left corner that contains the dealer’s RFC number.   … Finally, check the back of the factura for handwritten documentation of any prior sales/transfers of the vehicle.

Your purchase of the vehicle can be hand-written on the back of the factura as:

Cedo los derechos que ampara la presente factura a favor de: ___________ (buyers name)  por asi convenir a mis intereses: ______________________ (Printed Name of the Seller) … Direccion ______________ (Address) … Fecha ______________ (Date of Sale) … Firma de Vendador:  ______________  (Seller’s signature) …

Buying an imported vehicle?   Foreigner’s vehicles,  that have been permanently imported from outside Mexico by private parties, have the normal title issued by the owner’s foreign (USA? Canada?) home state ~Province,  or by the state~Province where the car was registered.  The foreign title must also be accompanied by a Pedimento from  Aduana (Mexican Customs) that documents that the vehicle was properly imported under a Permanent Import permit. (See below)
Pedimento de Aduana

Related Note:  Foreigners can sell cars only with Mexican license plates, because it is prohibited to sell temporarily imported permit cars that have foreign license plates. When a vehicle has a foreign license plate, it is here under the owner’s visa and cannot be sold to another owner.  Such sales must be done either outside Mexico, or at a Mexican border.

Vehicles newer than 2000 often also have an official Constancia de Inscripcion Vehicular card issued by the Secretaria de Economía that proves the vehicle was officially registered with Mexico’s Registro Nacional de Vehiculos.    The Constancia de Inscripcion Vehicular card looks like a credit card, but it has the car’s VIN (NIR) number, Model, Motor ID, and Chassis ID.   Not all vehicles have these cards, as the original owners must pay roughly $500 pesos to register the car in this national program.    All of these measures help prevent the sale of stolen cars.

In addition to these general proof-of-ownership documents that are used across Mexico, Yucatan has several other specific documents that help prove ownership.   Yucatan licensed vehicles also have a registration document that is called a Tarjeta de Circulación Vehicular issued by the S.S.P. (Secretaria de Seguridad Publica).   Owners should keep the original of this current registration in the vehicle at all times (See below).
Yucatan Tarjeta de Circulacion

More expensive (> $30,000 USD) Yucatecan-plated vehicles should also have a copy of the proof of payment of the annual tenencia called the Declaración de Pago del Impuesto Sobre Tenencia, and a windshield holographic sticker that proves the expensive vehicle’s tenencia is paid.

Where to Look for a Used Car

As in your home country, used cars are advertised in newspapers & online, including Mercado Libre (,, the classified section in the Diario de Yucatan,  Craigslist ~Yucatan , Tacolist etc.     (See end of the article.)

Other Options:  If you drive for more than a few hours anywhere in Mexico, you’ll see cars with $$dollar$$ signs on the windows.    These mean:   Auto for $ale in pe$so$.
Feel free to flag them down or get the phone number on their windshield to get the details.   Plus, for the truly brave, there is at least one official used car market … the Tianguis … at the Central de Abastos on Calle Av.  Merida 2000 , where individuals go to dump used cars.

The Tianguis usually has a large selection of used cars for sale, but buyer beware …  If you use the tips provided earlier in this article, you can probably avoid some of the worst possible problems.

As always, this information is only for educational & entertainment purposes, as we take no responsibility for any conse


Auto Parts Terminology (Spanish/English)

Yucatan’s SSP (Secretaria de Seguridad Publica) website

Kelley Blue Book, Private Party Used Car Values


Tacolist Used Cars in Yucatan

Craigslist Yucatan Cars for Sale

and Mercado Libre:
Dead Car

Happy Motoring,


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Feel free to copy while giving proper attribution: YucaLandia/Surviving Yucatan.
© Steven M. Fry

Read-on MacDuff . . .