How (not) to buy a car in Belgium

Buckle in everyone. This is the long saga of getting our car. It’s a sorry tale, one that should probably be written in blank verse, with music by Bob Dylan or Fairport Convention, but I don’t have that talent. So a blog post it is.

One of the reasons we moved back to Brussels was to be near my parents. Four years of separation due to COVID had showed me that Australia was too far away, and while they are in fine fettle, we’re all getting older and I wanted to be around them a bit more.

Having said that, moving to Belgium as UK nationals was no easy matter, as since 1 January 2022, we are counted as third country nationals (end of the transition period). Before we left Australia there were multiple battles with the European Commission personnel department, trying to get them to support an application for a highly qualified worker visa, which would mean we had proper residence status in Belgium, and it would have meant Jeremy had work rights. But nothing doing – they insisted the only path open was the special identity card, issued to Commission personnel by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Being on this card means a) we don’t have a chip in our card for health and other services b) Jeremy can’t work unless he can find an employer to sponsor him and c) it’s different from the usual process of registering via your commune (local council). Remember this, because it becomes very relevant later in the story.

My parents live in rural South West France, about 1000km from Brussels. Given this is a trip we will be doing several times a year, and with the dogs making air or train travel problematic, we decided to buy a car. Our hearts were set on a Mini Countryman (plug-in hybrid model) but when Jeremy went to the showroom, he was told it was an 18-month waiting list, and that time was growing by the day. So we decided to buy a second-hand car, even if prices are quite high.

After a bit of looking online, we found a really good option – a Suzuki Swace, which is basically a revamped Toyota Corolla estate, an engine hybrid. The estate is great with the dogs, and also for heading off on long holidays (loads of boot space). It was with an online dealership called MyWay, and the system is that you put down a deposit, they bring the car to a showroom near you where you can test drive it and if you buy it, the deposit is taken off the price. And it you don’t like it, you get the deposit back (I think).

So I paid the deposit on 19 July and asked to see the car as soon as possible. The soonest they could do was 6 August. This is where things started to get tricky. Because of my colleagues’ holidays, I couldn’t take leave until 22 August, but I could work remotely for a week, so we were planning on travelling to France the weekend of 13/14 August. But with the 15 August, a public holiday, on the Monday, that was clearly going to be a horrendous weekend on the roads, so we had thought about getting away on 12 August.

On 6 August we went out to Zaventem to see the car. Hilariously they just handed us the keys and said off you go, you can have it for an hour. We didn’t take that long, just drove out to Kortenbergh, parked up so we could have a good nose around it and then went back. We decided we liked it and got the bon de commande (purchase order), which indicated 11 August as the delivery date. I asked the dealer how long it would take to register and he said we would have it in about a week.

What I now know, but didn’t then and couldn’t get anyone to tell me, is that the dealership have certain documents that are required to sell a second-hand car, including what they call the “fiche rose” which is in fact the registration form. This “fiche rose” has to be signed by the insurer before it can be lodged online with WEBDIV, the online car registration system. The registration number is issued, one plate sent to the garage who make the other one and then you can collect your car. That’s the usual process.

So the documents aren’t issued until the car is paid for, you can’t get a loan until you have the bon de commande, insurance can’t be done until the documents are issued and the car can’t be registered until the insurance is in place.

Obviously, though I wasn’t clear on this sequence, I knew I needed to get the car loan quickly, and I had been told it would only take a few days. I had decided to take the easy route (HA!) and apply with my bank KBC. I couldn’t do the online simulation, because my husband’s details weren’t in the bank’s system, even though he doesn’t earn anything, because of our residency situation (see above). So I went into the branch, and spoke to someone who was very helpful. He put my husband’s details (ID card, passport number) in the system and then asked his colleague to do a loan simulation for me.

Similarly for the insurance, also via KBC, there were some issues. Firstly, when I put in the date that I had been told the car had first been registered, it said that wasn’t possible. And again, you can’t start the process until you have bought the car.

So I made an appointment to see the bank on 8 August, once I had the bon de commande. I went in that day, and met with a very helpful young man, who walked me through the loan application and put me in touch with his colleague that did insurance and I got a quote for that.

That’s when Spanner 1 was thrown into the works. Although I am the sole earner in my family, I cannot apply for a loan without my husband (go, Belgian feminism!). Part of the documentation we had to send was a signed declaration of tax residence. Because I was recruited from the UK originally, my tax residence has always been the UK. Consideration of the Withdrawal Agreement led me to believe this has not changed. It also states that if my spouse doesn’t work, he has the same tax residence as me. Jeremy therefore signed a declaration that his tax residence was the UK. The bank sent it back, saying his tax residence was Belgium. I replied saying that no, it wasn’t and explained why. They said no, he has to sign a declaration that his residence is Belgium. I replied that no, he wasn’t going to sign a declaration that he knew to be untrue, and if that was required to get the loan, then we respectfully declined. Luckily we had some money left over from a bequest from Jeremy’s parents and we transferred that from NZ. An activity not without difficulty, by the by, but pretty tame given what was to come.

The car was paid for on 12 August. But the delivery team had only received the documents on 11 August, so our timetable was already shot. They sent me through electronic copies of the documents so I could liaise with the insurance to get that done. The insurance agent I had spoken to was not there, but KBC arranged for an agent in another branch to see me. So I went up there and met their insurance team. This is where Spanner 2 made its appearance. Jeremy has been driving since 1981, me since 2003. But because we didn’t own a car in Australia, we haven’t had insurance in the last 5 years and so there is no no-claims bonus or anything. We had to both make declarations that we hadn’t had insurance in the last 5 years, the premium doubled from what I had been quoted, plus the policy now had to go to head office for approval. And with the following Monday being a public holiday, we certainly weren’t going to get a decision before Tuesday. Insurance on Tuesday, plates on Wednesday, pick up the car maybe Thursday? OK, so my teleworking week was not going to happen, but we still had hope of getting away for the two weeks of leave.

The insurance policy came through on Thursday (I found out by looking in my banking app, not because anyone let me know). Normally the insurance people go and do the registration in the online system. But it hadn’t happened. Spanner 3 was chucked in. I contacted my KBC agent and she told me that they couldn’t do it online, because, and this was information I was hearing for the first time, the vehicle had been imported from Hungary. So, I needed to get the original “fiche rose” and make an appointment with the DIV (vehicle registration office) to get the plates. But the insurance people needed to stamp the fiche rose to say that I was indeed insured.

So I got an Uber out to the delivery centre in Zaventem. It just so happened that my Uber driver had worked for them for 40 years and was able to explain the whole process to me (without him I wouldn’t know half of what is written in this post). When I got there, the woman handed me a load of papers, including the original “fiche rose” and a photocopy of a document in Hungarian. The Uber driver asked where the original “fiche verte” was. She told him that I didn’t need the original, just the copy they had given me. I got an Uber back into town, went to the Schuman branch of KBC, where they stamped the document and gave it back to me.

While in the Uber I went online to make the appointment to go to the DIV in person, but I couldn’t get an appointment until 23 August, the Tuesday of the week I was supposed to be down with my family. After a conversaton with Jeremy, I contacted the DIV to see if he could do the appointment on my behalf. Once they said yes, he could, with a letter giving him the power to act for me, we decided that I would get the train down to see my parents, he would go and do the registration, pick up the car and then he and the dogs would come and join me.

On the Tuesday morning at the time of the appointment at the DIV, my phone rang. It was Jeremy – the DIV couldn’t process my registration request without original documents. I called D’Ieteren and they gave me the number of the operational manager at MyWay, who said that he would speak to my insurance as they should be able to register the car online. Rest assured, he said, we will do what we can to get your car registered today. That afternoon I got a call – they needed to send me the original “fiche verte” and would courier it to my house (of course, too late for Jeremy to go back to the DIV that day). The next day, he went down, the documents were taken off him by a surly security guard and he was told it would be two days.

The delivery team checked on Wednesday – nothing. Thursday – nothing. Friday – still nothing. At that point, my parents suggested I head back to Brussels as it wouldn’t be worth Jeremy and the dogs driving down just for a few days, and I should have some leave time with them. So I headed back to Brussels and sent an email to the DIV asking them why the car hadn’t been registered.

I got the reply to that the day that I also got a letter sending back the originals because, get this for Spanner 4, I was in the national register as living abroad and so couldn’t register a car in Belgium. In Brussels, when you get registered, the police come by to check you are legit. They had come to the house during the day in May or June and Jeremy had shown them the lease. But it seems they hadn’t done what they needed to do, as while I was away in August, there had been a request to provide the information. It seemed likely that this was a final step that was holding things up, so I sent the lease to the policeman on 31 August, explaining that it was quite urgent and could he please let me know when it was done. He told me on the Thursdaythat he had done his bit, it was now with the commune, but I would be in the register on Monday.

So back to the DIV website to book an appointment, and the first available one was 8 September, several days after it should have been sorted at the commune level. I went in that morning, went up to the counter and handed over the form, to be met by head-shaking, teeth-sucking and the information that I wasn’t in the register. I’m not ashamed to say I got pretty upset at this point, and I guess the sight of a middle-aged woman in tears had an effect, as he suggested that I go and talk to the Transit office next door as they might have a solution or be able to suggest what I could do.

So I went next door and set out my problem to the two lovely Flemish ladies in the Transit office. Honestly, if it wasn’t for them, I’d probably still be waiting for this to get sorted. One of them called round and round to try and found out what was going on. It turned out – Spanner 5 – that the commune had never received information that I was back in the country, so had not done what they needed to do. Basically what was needed was for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to re-submit my dossier to the commune.

So I got on the metro and went up to the Commission’s Expat Support Office. I explained the situation and the official sent an email to the Foreign Ministry to try and get it sorted out. The following day the Ministry guy told me that he had done the necessary and had couriered it to the commune.

We were then in a waiting pattern. And there was no way for me to check what was going on. I wrote to the Commune, asking them to tell me when they had dealt with it – no reply (I can’t adequately explain to you the aching chasm of nothingness that met my attempts to contact Forest commune – calls, emails all unanswered. I considered booking an appointment, but the earliest appointment was in early October…). I asked for advice but all options to check your status require a chip in your ID card, which I don’t have. The only thing I could think to do was try to book a COVID vax on the Bruvax platform, which was rejecting me as long as my status wasn’t updated.

After a few days of this, and as suggested by my former diplomat father, I decided to go nuclear. On 14 September, I wrote to the Councillor in charge of population services, and copied it to the Mayor, explaining the whole sorry saga (well their end of it at least). Two hours later, I got a call from the man at the Commune. I talked him through the issue and he said that he would look into it. He called me back shortly after and told me that it was a very special procedure and the person that did it wasn’t in until Monday morning, but would deal with it first thing.

So with unrepentant hope in my heart, I made an appointment with the DIV for Tuesday 20 September, and with the car delivery people for Wednesday 21 September. On Monday the man from the Commune called me and said everything was in order. I got on a tram and went back to the DIV and went in to see the lovely ladies. They looked in the system but – DENIED. I was still listed as living abroad. I called the man from the Commune and passed him over. They agreed that it was probably an updating thing. So I went back the next morning, to the lovely ladies and this time, finally, joyously, I WAS ON THE REGISTER and my car was registered. I almost cried with joy. After that everything went swimmingly – we picked the car up on Wednesday, and on Thursday morning we threw our stuff, our two dogs and ourselves into it and drove for 14 hours to get to Monleon-Magnoac, from where I am writing. We’ll be down here for a couple of weeks, with me having permission to telework.

Belgium is pretty well-known for its bureaucracy – three levels of government will do that to a place – but I think this story is quite extreme even by their standards. At every stage, someone didn’t do their job right. The policeman that came and didn’t submit the paperwork. The dealership that didn’t tell us that the car was imported and didn’t know the procedure when it was. The official at the commune or ministry that didn’t process our information properly. The several people that told us that copies were OK when we needed originals. And if the Commission had supported us to get residency through normal channels, none of this would have happened.

It also showed that a) you need to find the helpful person that will help guide you through the forest and b) appealing to higher authorities will get things moving.

As for us, we’re going to spend time with my family, recharge the batteries that this saga pretty much emptied and get ready for the inevitable next fight with the system.

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen and European Union official, who lives in Brussels again after 6 years in London and 8 in Melbourne. My blog(s) reflect my interests in the EU, yarncrafts, organisations and dog ownership.

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