It’s been six months almost to the day since we arrived in Europe, and we still haven’t bought a car. As it turns out, shopping for a car if we had a car would be a lot easier! Still, we’ve learned a lot in the process and we’re confident we’ll find one soon. In the meantime, we’ve noted some big differences between car shopping here compared to the US. For any new expats or just first-time car buyers, we hope you find these tips for used car shopping in Switzerland useful.
7 Useful Tips for Used Car Shopping in Switzerland
1. First, few used cars listed for sale are by private party.
This is in stark contrast to the US, where you can shop thousands of used-auto listings by private party, from huge and popular websites to unofficial Craigslist ads.
In Switzerland, the process of buying a car is more regulated. The vast majority of used cars are listed for sale by small mechanic shops or dealers.
Because many of these dealers are very small, listings typically include a “business phone,” which is often just a cell phone, and calls frequently go unanswered.
2. Used car dealerships in Switzerland have limited hours of operation.
It’s common for many of the smaller car dealers to have short, irregular hours.
We strongly recommend calling first to schedule an appointment. If you don’t, you run the risk of stopping at the business during “normal business hours” and finding that nobody is there.
This has happened to us more times than we can count.
3. Don’t assume everyone speaks English.
One of the biggest obstacles for us has been the language barrier. If you live in Zurich, Geneva, or one of the largest cities, this won’t be such an issue.
We happen to live in a small village outside a small town. Fewer people speak English in rural areas. Most of the dealers we’ve visited are in neighboring villages.
We’ve called countless sellers all over Switzerland and with only two exceptions, none of them spoke English. Obviously understandable considering Switzerland is a country with four national languages – French, German, Italian, and Romansh – with none of them being English.
We’ve had friends call about a couple of cars for us. While it’s an imposition we’ve tried to avoid, it’s a good option if you don’t speak any of the country’s national languages. The locals will appreciate it, and you’ll increase your chances of actually buying a car.
4. The most common used car for sale in Switzerland is for “export only.”
Parts and labor are so costly that buying a used car in Switzerland often isn’t even feasible.
If a car develops something even as minor as clutch problems, it’s not uncommon for the owner to just trade in the car to a mechanic or small dealer. The owner gets a car without mechanical problems and the dealer will fix the car if it’s cost effective and re-sell it.
More likely, they’ll export it for more than the price they could get for fixing and reselling it in Switzerland. The turnover rate on cars here is high with an impressive number of used cars available on the market. Unfortunately, the vast majority are for “export only.”
We’ve followed up on so many cars, we finally realized we just needed to ask straightaway if the car was for export. Without understanding anything beyond that, most sellers would say “Oui, export,” and that was the end of that car for us.
Depending on whether you live in the German or French-speaking part of Switzerland, you’ll want to remember this question:
German: Ist das Auto nur für den Export?
French: Est la voiture pour l'exportation uniquement?
What’s a typical day for us car shopping in Switzerland like?
This particular day of car shopping in Aigle turned out to be no exception.
Our first stop was the town of Romont to see a Honda CR-V. We hadn’t been able to reach the seller despite multiple phone calls, but since it was on our way to see several other cars, we decided to wing it and just stop by on the off chance they were open.
After a 30-minute walk from the train station in Romont, we arrived at a small gas station sandwiched between a large auto body shop and a used car lot. The beautiful, shiny CR-V was parked right on the corner in all – its – glory.
Beefy running boards.
Miles of clearance.
Rugged winter tires.
For a non-Toyota, it was pret-ty swank.
Alas, it was not to be!
With nobody on site, we called the seller yet again. No answer.
The sticker price in the window was 8400 CHF – a ridiculous price. The ad we’d found for it online had it listed at 6900 CHF. Even that was too high.
Highway robbery! We sighed and trudged back to the train station to continue on to Aigle to see a second vehicle for sale.
5. Which leads us to yet another tip: even used cars in Switzerland are EXPENSIVE!
Unless you’re Swiss, you’ll undoubtedly find the prices of used cars to be really, really high. There’s a reason a lot of Swiss travel over the border to Germany, France, Italy, anywhere else to buy a car. It’s definitely worth considering if you understand the import rules and know the cost of Customs and fees that might be owed.
If you’re expecting the high purchase prices, they won’t be so shocking. Just imagine that the $5000 or euros you’d pay for a used car in the US or elsewhere in Europe will be closer to double that in Switzerland. You can then adjust your expectations and your budget accordingly.
6. Pay attention to the emissions rating.
If you never plan to leave Switzerland with your car, this really might not matter. But it’s something to at least consider.
European standards in the automotive industry are fairly high. They’re certainly higher than those in most US states, California being an exception.
When it comes to emissions, particulates, and even whether you choose gas, diesel, or electric, think about how much it will cost you now and in the near future to have a vehicle that isn’t environmentally friendly. In the short run, it’ll likely cost more to register in your Swiss canton. In the long run, you might not even be able to drive it in certain cities or areas if it doesn’t meet their clean-energy guidelines.
Unlike countries like Germany that have an environmental rating system for vehicles, Switzerland currently doesn’t. That means it’s possible to buy one of the many used diesel cars on the market in Switzerland, yet not be allowed to export and drive it in restricted “green” areas across Europe.
As the EU continues to tighten restrictions on high-emission vehicles, it’s quite possible Switzerland will also move to this sort of system in the future. It’s actually a bit surprising they don’t already. Regardless, make sure you don’t end up buying an albatross.
7. Americans will notice a significant lack of pickup trucks and large or even mid-size SUVs for sale in Switzerland.
In general, cars are much smaller in Europe than in the USA. Many of the cars labeled “SUVs” in Switzerland wouldn’t be considered that in the US: they’d just be cars. In Europe these vehicles typically lack the ground clearance, interior cargo space, and body size of American SUVs.
Keep in mind though that depending on where you’ll be driving it, that these differences exist for good reason. Smaller vehicles are more common in part because of practicality.
Our old Toyota 4-Runner in Oregon would be hard pressed to fit through many of the narrow streets in Europe’s urban areas.
Good luck ever finding parking for such a monster!
How does our car shopping trip to Aigle turn out?
After visiting the beautiful, shiny CR-V in Romont, I couldn’t feel my toes by the time we got back to the Romont train station.
We warmed up on the train ride to Lausanne, then opted not to visit a dealer there after Trav called and confirmed the CR-V we wanted to see there was for export only.
Instead, we caught a connecting train to back-track around Lake Geneva and continued south to Aigle, a tiny village sandwiched between massive white-capped mountain ranges.
Another 30-minute walk and we arrived at yet another huge used car lot.
Pickup trucks are so uncommon that this lime green beauty immediately catches our eye while car shopping in Switzerland.
Sadly, it’s “export only.”
We were actually interested in two Toyota Rav4s.
After slipping and sliding along the icy pavement to scope them out, we were excited that both looked perfect!
Diesel, gas mileage under 7 l/100 km, 4WD, ample space for four with room in back for outdoor adventure gear, good clearance, and both for just over 5000 CHF.
Again, our hopes were shot as soon as the owner came over and told us both were for export because they needed a new clutch, which he estimated would run about 2000 CHF for the parts and labor.
For a clutch! What insanity is this?!
He said he planned to export both to Africa, where he could get an estimated 5000 CHF apiece for them.
He showed us an older, more bare-bones and battered petrol (gas) Rav4, which we test drove. It was more expensive and the gas mileage was worse. Thanking him, we left empty-handed and walked back to the train station in Aigle.
After three hours and multiple train transfers, extended waits on chilly platforms, a bus ride, and no shortage of walking, we finally arrived home, still without a vehicle.
Here are more expat articles related to car shopping in Switzerland. Riveting stuff, we know.