Like many Americans who live outside major urban centers, I own a car. It sits in the driveway for months at a time. When I am in Charlottesville, I only use the car to carpool or to haul our trailer. My son, Daniel, drives his car every day, so he appreciates having somebody else drive once in a while. Like the proverbial little old lady in the joke about the car salesman, I can almost say that I only drive it to church on Sundays.
After the Southern Swing 2013, I promised myself to have a close look at whether to keep owning an automobile at all. For background, I own a 2003 Volkswagen Jetta, paid for, with 117,600 km on it. I have already performed the 150,000-km checkup (the expensive one), so the car is good for another 160,000 km, or another two decades at the rate that I drive it. If we consider both the Northern Trek 2014 and Europe 2015, I expect to be away from the car for at least the next 15 months, if not two years or more.
I was facing several choices, some or all of which you may have considered when deciding to keep or sell the car before a long trip:
- Where will I leave the car? Leaving a car in a driveway for an extended period of time will cause water and sludge to build up in the engine block, the exhaust system to rust out, and the tires to deteriorate from UV radiation. In other words, a car is designed to be driven, not parked. Parking it in a garage will at least protect the tires, especially if you put it on blocks. But proper long-term storage requires draining the engine block, adjusting the tire pressure, mounting the car on blocks, and ideally, air-conditioning the garage.
- Can I find somebody to drive the car while I’m gone? During the Southern Swing 2013, my car was the “neighborhood car.” Three families shared it, with one of them responsible for taking it for a spin at least once every week. That did not work out so well, because the families did not need the car that much, and the one family forgot to drive it. I had to have the engine flushed when I got back.
- Is the car mine to sell or keep? I happen to own my car outright, but I have owned cars jointly with my wife. The other person on the title may have a say in whether you keep your car or not.
- Is there someone who was counting on my having that car? This may be a child who was planning to drive it away to college, a neighbor who wanted to buy it, or a friend or relative with a less reliable vehicle, who has borrowed yours in the past.
- Is long-term storage affordable or convenient? A long-term storage parking lot would be no better than my driveway. In my case, the nearest protected storage was over 100 miles away, and the cost of having the car properly prepared for long-term storage, then restored for road use was more than the car was worth. You may have affordable, convenient long-term storage nearby.
- Can I afford new car payments after I get back? For me, a new car would mean taking on payments of about USD250/month. I can afford that, but I would have to compare it with the cost of a local rental car when I need one, and make a decision based partly on cost and partly on convenience. The cost of car payments and car rentals varies depending on where you live and what kind of car you want. If you really need a car only occasionally but urgently, a rental membership like Zipcar® (www.zipcar.com) might be worth investigating.
- Am I committed to reducing my carbon footprint? I am not going to get into an discussion about environmental impact here, but this may be important to you, so much so that not owning a car may be a serious choice, once you prove that you don’t need one, by living without one for a while.
- Who else can help me with this decision? If, like me, you wrestled with this, it would probably be a good idea to have a conversation about it with someone whose opinion you value. In fact, you might want to have the conversation with at least two different people, representing opposite points of view.
So what happened to me?
I did some research, and cranked some numbers. The results almost speak for themselves.
– Annual ownership cost, including licenses, maintenance, fuel, etc.: USD900.
– Annual cost of local car rental when needed, four times per month: USD1200.
– Annual cost of long-term storage in a protected facility: at least USD1200.
– Annual ownership cost, if I sell the Jetta and buy a new car later: USD4000.
It would appear that keeping the car is a no-brainer. However, the real cost of my keeping the car without driving it becomes at least USD2100/year, because I need to find protected storage.
I contacted a few people who had expressed interest in my car. Then I had a conversation with my son.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Jack and Mary Beth are both still interested in buying my car. I’m inclined to sell it.”
Daniel looked up from his iPhone.
“Dad,” he said, “there is the fact that I had to use your car twice while you were gone when mine wouldn’t start in the driveway. I can’t exactly call Enterprise Rent-a-Car at zero-dark-hundred when I need to be at the store in time to open.”
I had not realized that Daniel had used the “neighborhood car” more than the neighbors.
“So you probably still need it as a backup car.”
“So what can we do to make sure that the car is driven regularly?” I asked. “I really don’t want to have to flush the engine and change the new tires when I come back.”
We discussed that problem for a while, and agreed that he would use my car and not his, every Monday night to go to the Oratorio Society rehearsal, where he works as an accompanist. That would give the car a 32-km run on the interstate once a week, and keep the tires parked on a different spot in between runs.
I decided to keep the car, for personal reasons that allowed the economic reasons to be feasible. Daniel has a backup car. He also knows how to use the trailer, so he can help his friends when they need to relocate. I call it a win-win.
Next week, another sea story. Then, I will be so close to starting on the Northern Trek 2014 that I will be able to lay out the broad route for you and share some of the new and different things I am hoping to do on this next trip. As always, your questions and comments are welcome.
Smooth roads and tailwinds,