Keep the car or not? The rest of the story.

2014-04-25 jetta port bowIf you are considering your first extended ride, and you live alone, you may wonder what to do with your car. If you have already done a tour, you may wonder whether you need a car. I have been on both sides of the question. I hope this helps.

Like most Americans who live outside major urban centers, I owned a car. Until 2015, it sat in the driveway for months at a time. When I was in Charlottesville, I only used the car to carpool or to haul our trailer. My son, Daniel, drove his car every day, so he appreciated having somebody else drive once in a while. Like the proverbial little old lady in the joke about the car salesman, I could almost say that I only drove it to church on Sundays.

2014-04-25 jetta bowBefore I set out on the Northern Trek 2014, I promised myself to have a close look at whether to keep owning an automobile at all. For background, I owned a 2003 Volkswagen Jetta, paid for, with 117,600 km on it. I had already performed the 150,000-km checkup (the expensive one), so the car was good for another 160,000 km, or another two decades at the rate that I was driving it. If we consider both the Northern Trek 2014 and Europe 2015, I expected 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:

  1. indoor car storageWhere 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.
  2. 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. engine fluidsI had to have the engine flushed when I got back.
  3. Is the car mine to sell or keep? I happened 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.
  4. Is there someone who is counting on my having that car? This may be a child who plans to drive it away to college, a neighbor who wants to buy it, or a friend or relative with a less reliable vehicle, who has borrowed yours in the past.
  5. Is long-term storage affordable or convenient? A long-term storage parking lot would be no better than my driveway. outside storageIn 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.
  6. Can I afford new car payments after I get back? For me, a new car would have meant taking on payments of about USD250/month. I could afford that, but I needed to compare that 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. zipcar closeupIf you really need a car only occasionally but urgently, a rental membership like Zipcar® might be worth investigating.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 was a no-brainer. However, the real cost of my keeping the car without driving it would have been at least USD2100/year, because I needed 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.”

He nodded.

“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 worked 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.

2013-08-23 spudnuts runThe next weekend, we hitched up the trailer and drove to the high school parking lot for some trailer training. Daniel turned out to be a natural, backing and parking the trailer better than I did.

I decided to keep the car, for personal reasons that allowed the economic reasons to be feasible. Daniel had a backup car. He also knew how to use the trailer, so he could help his friends when they needed to relocate. I called it a win-win.

After I came back from the Northern Trek 2014 and prepared to relocate to Europe, we both had a different perspective. He had gotten much better about maintaining his car, and did not feel that he needed mine as a backup vehicle. He was already looking at having to assume responsibility for the house and grounds. We agreed that I should sell the car before I left for Europe 2015.

I still don’t have a car. Instead, I have a bicycle, public transit passes for
Charlottesville, New York, Washington DC, Vancouver BC, London, and Boston. And I have generous friends. Renting a car would still be an affordable option, but in the two years since I returned from Europe, I haven’t needed to do that.

Have you had a serious look at whether owning a car is worth it? What did you decide? Did you try to go without a car? How did that work out? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


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