How to Buy a Safe second-hand Car in Senegal (with bonus checklist!)

By: Danielle Ciribassi

Buying SAFE Cars in Senegal - Sharing My Experience

Hi - Danielle here! As someone who has bought and sold 9 used cars in the United States, I feel like I have had my fair share of understanding what to look for. Turns out I was pretty overconfident when it comes to the unregulated used car market here in Senegal :)

To be fair, I have also had loads of experience so far with cars here, too. Which has been enough to make me avoid them for years! After renting cars on multiple occasions, I have had every bad experience you can think of -- from a check engine light, to a broken steering wheel, to bad breaks, and more.

Safety Concerns - What are the Risks?

Those who know the most about cars in Senegal are often times the taxi drivers. They know their own cars inside and out, and are able to jerry-rig a quick fix most of the time if your taxi breaks down -- happens to the best of us!

On a serious note, mechanics here often either don't know, don't have the parts on hand, or try to do a quick-fix job to satisfy the unknowing client -- and over-charge you. Everyone has a mechanic to recommend, that they are "the best" - but so many beautiful cars are imported into this country that are salvaged, accident history, manipulated speedometers, and worse...and most mechanics don't know how, or just don't check things thoroughly. And this is SCARY to those of us who are used to accountability, especially when it comes to safety, and want to trust that someone cares about our lives and that our children enough to sell a car honestly. But this, unfortunately, is most often not the reality in Senegal.

Most mechanics are NOT trained in full inspections, are not detail oriented, and often have a "that's good enough" attitude. I know this from experience. Here are just a few examples of what I've run into:

  • When I rented a car that had just been to a "great mechanic" - and the front left tire literally popped off while we were driving, and I was 7 months pregnant. Luckily we were not on the highway.

  • A car I wanted to rent turned out to be very different from the pictures. It had been (badly) painted over to hide several accidents, and someone had (badly) soldered critical metal pieces together. Who knows what the motor was hiding!

  • Another car's chassis was so badly rusted underneath from salt - from a city with either snow or beach - that you could literally pierce it with a pencil.

  • The car I rented with my parents would literally shut off - yes, shut off - when we would go slower than 10 km/hour. We were assured this 2-year old car was "nickel" and in perfect shape when we rented it, but when we were 300 km from Dakar in the head in between villages, every speed bump would make the car turn off. Not very reassuring for my parents, or for me, to say the least.

  • A friend had an accident involving her own car and a horse and cart. The horse backed up at a stop sign, and the long metal rods it had been carrying pierced her headlight. After a crowd formed, she simply waived the driver along, since it was clear he didn't have any insurance. She had to fix the damage out of her pocket.

Now that I have a baby boy, and client meetings across the city, I realized it was time to purchase my own vehicle. Hence finally learning the ins-and-outs of buying a car in Senegal -- and I'd like to share what I now know with you!

Where to Find the Car - and What to Look For

The way this process almost always starts is through several social media outlets -- the biggest two being Expat Dakar (you can use their app) and Facebook (Dakarium: Wheels, and other pages when you search "vehicule," "Dakar," or "voitures," like this one.

Once you find a car you like, be on the lookout for the following keywords:

  • "déjà dédouané" - means the car has already cleared customs. You want any car you look at to have already cleared customs! Otherwise you'll need to pay, and this will run several million CFA, not to mention time, over your budget.

  • "déjà muté"- means the car has already had a license plate registered in Dakar. If the license plate is blue, with a combination of B+another letter at the end, you can be sure it has been driven quite a lot around the city for a few years. With the sand, dust, and bumpy roads, this can take a toll on a car's structure -- and also won't show on on the VIN history (which you'll check later).

  • "pas encore muté" - If the car doesn't yet have a license plate in the pictures, it means it hasn't yet been registered. The good news is that it hasn't been in Dakar for long, so it hasn't had a chance to risk an accident or other untraceable events associated with the VIN. The downside is that you'll have to register the car yourself for license plates -- and count this being about 200,000 CFA for your budget.

  • Essence vs. Diesel - these are the two types of gasoline types. Essence means regular gas, like most cars in the United States, and Diesel is what typically semi-trucks run on in the US. In Senegal, you find both types for personal vehicules - Diesel lasts longer, but pollutes more (at least that's the common sentiment here), and Essence is typically what you're used to. Essence is also cheaper. I'm not sure it matters either way, in the long-run, although you can do your own research on both.

  • Full Options - basically is the way of saying there is often leather or faux-leather seats, a back-up camera, and a sunroof.

If you find a few that seem clean, from the pictures, you can reach out and contact the "seller," which is often a middleman or "courtier," selling for the owner. You can either text them directly, or reach out via WhatsApp, so they can easily send you more pictures and information.

Preliminary Research

The very first question to ask them is for the VIN number. (If they don't know what a VIN number is, then they probably aren't a serious seller. Most of them do know what a VIN is!!)

Once you have a VIN, you have the car's history in either the US or Canada, before it was imported into Senegal. After it arrived here, and was driven by a previous owner(s), it's anyone's guess what happened. But at least, you can see before then - if there were any recalls, if the title was salvaged, if there were accidents, and how many owners.

For a full report, you will pay at least $30 for a Carfax report. But there are plenty of other websites not for US and Canada cars that show you the basics of what you need to know for free, as long as you have the VIN.

In addition to the car history report, you should also look at the national Recall list, by VIN. It will tell you if the car responded to recalls by the manufacturer, if the safety issues were actually repaired or not. (If they haven't been, it's no reason to panic - the mechanics recommended in this article will be able to fix them for you, as long as you know w