Buying a car in Malawi

We bought a car today! And so we say good buy to the mini-busses for a while. Buying a car in Malawi was an entertaining experiment and a wonderful insight into the economy here. In all the process took about one week from when agreed to buy the car. Everything here is done in cash, so it made things the transaction a little tricky. We were able to wire money from the US to our recently opened Malawian bank account. It took about 4 days for the transaction to take. We then wrote a check to ourselves for an amount equal to about a foot and a half tall stack of bills in Malawian Kwacha. The largest bill in Malawi is 500 Kwacha (this is about $4.50). If you can imagine buying a car with a stack of five-dollar bills you will quickly be able to visualize the chunk of change we were carrying with us. So we loaded our chunk into a backpack and a friend of ours drove us to the office of the owner of the car. The office is in a rougher end of Lilongwe, a place where you really wouldnt even want to walk around with as little as $10 in your pocket (hey, we really needed wheels). There we traded the stack for the car you see here... a pretty good deal if you ask me.

Here are somethings to keep in mind the next time you want to buy a car in Malawi:

  • If you are speaking about a car with someone on the phone, be sure to ask if the car is a “runner”. Cars in Malawi come as “runners” and “non-runners”. Just because a car is for sale, do not expect it to run or have an engine.
  • When reading classified adds for cars, the term “lady driven” essentially means lightly driven. Chances are the car you are looking at was driven only on paved roads.
  • Check that the registration tags are all in place and up to date. There should be three or four of them from the various auto agencies of Malawi on the left hand side of the windshield. Nearly every road block in Malawi checks your tags.
  • Verify with your employer whether you are eligible for “duty free status” or not. Basically there are two car markets in Malawi the duty paid and duty unpaid markets. No one seems to really know what the law is, but some employees of certain organizations receive duty free status for their time in Malawi. Employees with duty free status are able to buy cars that do not have their duty paid. Duty in Malawi is about 100% of the value of the car, so you do not want to discover that you need to pay duty after you buy one. If you have duty free status, the cars you will be able to buy will be significantly cheaper, but might be harder to sell because you need sell to another person with duty free status. Duty paid cars are more expensive, but can be sold to a wider range of people.
  • Cars in Malawi need to have strips of red and white reflective tape on the bumpers. Red on the back and white on the front. They check for this frequently at the countries many road blocks.
  • Cars in Malawi are also required to carry two reflective triangles with them at all times, make sure the car you are buying comes with them. I have already been asked twice to show my triangles at multiple road blocks.
  • Check that the car has a good spare tire and a jack. Often if the owner has taken the car to a mechanic the jack “disappears”. The owner might now even be aware of this.
  • Check exchange rates carefully for your method of payment. Differences of just one or two kwacha can make a huge difference in your price. Wiring in dollars to and from foreign bank accounts might be a good option. When buying from a local, be prepared to pay cash. Bring a large backpack and an even larger bodyguard with you to carry your foot and a half tall stack of cash from the bank to the sale.