My New Car – An American Retiree in Jamaica

The art of buying a car in Montego Bay is not what I was used to in the U.S.A. First of all, there aren’t any new car dealers anywhere in town. If I did want to purchase a new car, I would have to travel to Kingston, about a 4 hour one-way drive. Not wanting to venture that far away, I opted for a used car. There are two types of used cars; one that has been driven in Jamaica all its life or one that has been shipped directly from Japan. In either case, the supply is very limited.

Having seen Jamaican drivers for over five years, I decided the Japanese car was my best bet. There are about a half a dozen or so used car dealers within Mobay which my wife and I visited. Some of the dealers had as few as 7 cars to a couple of dealers who had about 20 cars. The selection was very poor to say the least.

The big advantage to the Japanese cars, besides not having been driven in Jamaica, is their excellent condition. I was very surprised at the low mileage. Most of the 2-3 year old cars have between 10,000-20,000 miles on them. Everyone of them were in near mint condition. Some of the flaws were minor scratches around the bumpers. They all had the smell of a new car. Even a hot engine had that new car smell. The hardest thing to find was a car with all the features that we were looking for. The first model we looked at was a Toyota Probox. For safety reasons, my wife wanted power door locks, power windows, and air conditioning. We never found one with all of those features. They all had a/c, but the power doors and windows were limited to either just the driver’s side or only the front doors. We learned that the Probox model was primarily used as a business vehicle or taxi. They are very durable on Jamaican roads and it is easy to obtain service repairs from just about any mechanic.

Not being able to get the above features, we settled for a Toyota Corolla Fielder, which is full sized and well equipped. The one we bought was the only one we found. There is standard equipment on this car that I’ve never seen before. Accessories have really changed since I bought a car last. This one has a switch to raise and lower the low beam lights. I use the lower setting getting around town and the higher one on the highways. The main feature is an Eclipse AVD/CD/AV/NAVI system which includes a TV and a GPS system. Unfortunately, there were only two stations in Jamaica with only one getting good reception. The GPS system is only good in Japan! However, if this system is available in Jamaica, it would be as easy as slipping in a CD to convert it to the island. The audio selections are far over this old man’s head. But it does have six customized graphic equalizers and something called DSP that can make the sound appear to be coming from a stadium, nightclub, or several other locations.

The downside of purchasing one of these cars directly from Jamaica is there is no operating manual for the car or the Eclipse system because they would all be in Japanese. The 4WD car also came with four snow tires! Wow! I forgot how noisy snow tires can be on the highway. At least it’s easier to crank the volume up on the radio than to buy four new tires.

Now that we selected the car we wanted, where do we get the money to pay for it. The options were a car loan, equity loan on our house, or dip into the reserve funds. One trip to the bank solved that problem. The equity loan was ruled out fast. We would have to have homeowner’s insurance, something only about 35% of the homeowners have in Jamaica. It is very expensive. There would have been too much red tape to acquire this loan. That left the car loan. The current interest rate for used cars is 18%, 17% for new cars. The loan officer at the bank gave us a “Loan Calculation” sheet to go over at home. To make it easier to understand I’ve converted the figures to U.S. dollars. The loan was to be for $22,000 with monthly payments of $550.00. At the end of five years the car would have cost a total of over $33,000! It didn’t take long to rule that option out either. That left my wife’s inheritance! This money would be wired to Jamaica faster than if we applied for either loan at the bank.

Now that we had the money, all that was left to do was get insurance and transfer the plates from the old car to the new one. Not an easy task in Jamaica. It took the better part of two days for this to happen. Day one started shortly after lunch when our funds were credited to our local bank. The first stop was to transfer our funds from our account to the dealer’s account in the same bank. Then we went to the dealer to get the paperwork for the insurance company. From there we went to the Inland Revenue building which was closed but our saleswoman knew someone inside who allowed us to come in to get the bulk of the paperwork completed. First thing in the morning, we were back before they opened. Here we completed the registration and paid the fee. The balance of the morning was waiting for the alarm to be installed. We were told it would be a half an hour job, but it actually took several hours. From there we went back to the insurance company but because the appraisal was done before the alarm system was installed, we had to get the appraisal amended to include the alarm. The alarm system was worth a 5% reduction in the insurance premium. To get an additional 10% discount, we had to open a savings account with the bank owned by the insurance company. If you are a regular reader of this column, you will remember the article about how banking can take hours because of the long lines. The account didn’t get opened until after the closing hours of the insurance company, but thankfully the manager of the insurance company, whom we were doing business with, allowed us to come in after hours to complete our transaction.

We are now the proud owners of the most popular car in Jamaica; a white Toyota Corolla!