Cheap, Eco, Wanderer

We’ve Been a Zero Car Family for Five Years

My partner and I have lived in Washington, DC with zero cars for the past five years. We’ve purposely designed our life to be car-free. Some people call us crazy, but we have our reasons.

Prior to moving to the District my partner and I lived in a larger, sprawling city. The city had its own public transit system, but to be honest it wasn’t very reliable or useful, and therefore we barely made use of it. We each owned a car and, save for the last three months of our time there, I would drive to and from work each day.

When my partner and I decided to move to DC we recognized that, due to a much better public transit system and the fact that DC is a more compact, densely designed city, we would need to downgrade from two cars to one. Between our two vehicles we decided to bring my 10+ year old sedan, as it was smaller, newer, and more fuel efficient than my partner’s car. Towing my car behind our U-Haul on the 600+ mile trip to DC was a nightmare for another story, but eventually we made it (relatively) safe and sound.

After following the requisite rules to change over the registration, inspection, drivers licenses, etc. to a new municipality we were faced with the decision on where to store the car. We ultimately decided to purchase a street parking permit. While our apartment complex did have an attached parking garage, a space in the garage cost about $100 a month on top of our already hefty rent. In comparison, it cost $35 for a yearly street parking pass, so the street parking pass was certainly worth the $1,000-a-year savings. However, at the time we did not realize that street parking around the city could be restricted for several days due to city tree work/removal, moving vans, or other utility work. Legally speaking, the person who reserves or restricts the street’s parking is required to print and hang no-parking signs no later than 72 hours before the time the reserved parking is to take place. When we were parking on the street we didn’t know about the 72 hour rule, but we did see these reserved parking signs from time to time and therefore set ourselves a personal rule to check the car once a week to ensure the area in which it was parked hadn’t been marked as reserved.

Since our street did not have many parking spots to begin with, we generally were only able to find parking on the next street over – one we never visited unless it was time to check the car. Actually, we rarely ever walked in that direction. While it doesn’t sound like much, going to check on the car once a week became a huge hassle for us. Even more concerning was that regularly using the car to make sure the battery didn’t die became an even bigger hassle. I found myself forgetting I had a car as I would take the train to and from work and would walk, bus, or bike to run errands if they didn’t fall on the train line. Since parking and driving in DC is so difficult and stressful – and, at times, costly – I found myself not even considering driving as an option to complete any errands. My partner would use the car slightly more than me, and soon after moving to DC we turned the car on one day to discover the check engine light was activated. At this time we had a car with 1) a check engine light that we 2) rarely used and 3) that I didn’t even want anymore.

Annoyed, I begrudgingly drove to an auto service store to have them read which error code was triggering the check engine light. While it would have been faster and easier to take the car to a mechanic or the dealership, I was first attempting to solve the issue myself without throwing more money into a car I didn’t want by paying someone else fix the issue. I purchased a few replacement parts that, per several online forums, were the easiest potential fix to my problem. After installing the new parts I eagerly turned the car on, hoping the check engine light would have turned itself off, but, alas, it persisted. Further deflated, I drove back to the auto store and requested that they reset the check engine light – my reasoning being that if I had fixed the issue the light would remain off once it was reset, but if it wasn’t fixed it would come back on. The employees refused, stating it was against regulations and that they could be complicit in my car erroneously passing a city inspection.

Frustrated and at the end of my rope, my partner and I had a long talk about our new life in the District and ultimately decided it wasn’t worth keeping a vehicle. Four months after moving to DC we wound up driving to a halfway point between our home and my parent’s place to give them the car, which had been a (used) gift to me when I left home after college.

Since that point five years ago, my partner and I have used planes, trains, buses, and automobiles to travel both domestically and internationally. We have very much enjoyed being a zero car family and honestly haven’t regretted giving away our car in the least bit – until the pandemic.

For the first few months after March 2020 we laid low and didn’t go many places outside of our own home, the grocery store, and work. But the stress of the pandemic began to wear on us so in August of 2020 we decided to take our first trip since March of that year – a week-long stay near a Virginia state park in a small, rural town. Although we had occasionally rented cars prior to the pandemic, this was our first time doing so since March 2020. We found the process to be relatively safe and without too much hassle, and since August 2020 have made several other rental reservations. All of our subsequent rentals have been from the same rental agency located in downtown DC, as we’ve found that travelling to the airport and paying the extra airport fees aren’t worth the trouble of renting a car.

How much have we spent in rental car costs during the pandemic? Well, actually, quite a bit more than I expected. From August 1, 2020 to Aug 1, 2021 we spent a total of $1,827.21. This amount includes the cost of purchasing temporary liability insurance offered through the rental agency since we don’t have our own auto insurance policy. We always waive collision insurance since it’s supplied via paying for the car rental with one of several of our credit cards that provide this perk. Gas is not included in the above total since we would be paying for roughly the same amount of gas if we rented or owned a car. I would argue that, if we became car owners, we would use even more gas than we currently use renting as we would likely drive more if we owned our own car. To be fair, it’s possible we could save money on rentals by shopping around to various rental agencies prior to each rental. We did so for our first rental of 2020, but considering the hassle of doing so each time, along with the hassle of then getting to those rental car locations, we’ve opted to go with a singular agency that has a rewards program based on usage.

Car owners might scoff at paying almost $2k a year for rental cars. And while I have to admit it sounds high, I dug a bit further into the data since we’re considering purchasing a car due to soaring rental car prices, rental car shortages, and an abysmal return to public transit this summer (more on that another day).

Per Consumer Reports, a 10-year-old used car (the kind of car we would purchase if we were to buy) costs an average of $5,160 a year in just maintenance and repairs. A five-year-old car would cost less per year, but still clocks in at $2,460. I checked several other sites such as AAA and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics and found that, while each site calculates average cost differently (some include registration & licensing fees, some include financing, and still others include fuel costs) all quoted the average yearly cost as above our total of $1,827.21. Further, this cost is in addition to the up-front vehicle purchase cost. To be fair, the average per day cost of renting vs. owning certainly lands as a win for owning, but considering car ownership would likely lead to more driving – which subsequently leads to more gas and maintenance costs as well as further car depreciation – I tend to think that, for our family’s specific circumstances, we come out ahead by renting. Plus, we’re able to drive newer model cars with features we have never had in our own personal vehicles such as sun roofs, seat warmers, and back-up cameras (we’re living in car rental luxury over here, let me tell you).

A new car would certainly have lower maintenance costs than a used car, but the average cost of a new car in the U.S. has skyrocketed to $40,000, a price my partner and I are not looking to pay. Additionally, we don’t feel the rapid depreciation that comes with a new car purchase is a good fit for our financial goals.

Something we love about our car-free lifestyle is that running simple errands forces us to be outside and physically active.

Here’s a peek into our pros & cons list for purchasing a 10+-year-old car:

PROS

  • Less exposure to COVID-19 vs. renting
  • Greater ability to go to car-centric locations (hiking locales, Goodwill, etc.)
  • Ability to escape the city in case of an emergency – most recently see here
  • Shared driving capabilities for my partner and I at no extra cost (rental companies typically charge per day for additional drivers unless they are the spouse of the person renting)
  • Easier to see family/friends
  • Easier to pick up second-hand large items
  • Fahrvergn├╝gen for my partner – in German, Fahrvergn├╝gen means “the joy of driving”
  • More convenient access to a vehicle
  • Greater travel flexibility

CONS

  • High upfront cost
  • Hassle of checking the car’s parking spot every 72 hours
  • Monthly car costs (maintenance, gas, etc.)
  • Hassle of going through the logistics of purchasing a car
  • Greater risk of obesity/car-dependency
  • Added stress of attending to car maintenance
  • Need to shovel snow in winter
  • Greater risk of dying from the leading cause of death in the first three decades of life in the U.S. (motor vehicle accidents)
  • Contributing to global emissions
  • Running the engine weekly to prevent battery from dying
  • Over-paying market value due to high pandemic prices
  • Anxiety of city driving
  • Difficulty of finding street parking/remembering where the car is parked
  • Obtaining DMV appointments for registration/inspection, parking permit, etc. during the pandemic (DC recently stopped requiring DMV appointments, but it is likely they will be required once again based on COVID case numbers)
  • A material possession that ties us to a U.S. locale
  • Risk of trees falling (hey, you may think it’s unlikely but in the last year we’ve seen two trees in our neighborhood fall and destroy several cars & a home)

So where does this leave us? Well, we’re still in indecision limbo. Used car prices are the highest they’ve been in quite some time. Car rental prices aren’t forecasted to decrease to normal levels until the next year or two, and once COVID-19 cases decrease we hope to get back to travelling via public transportation, especially as road traffic picks up again. So for right now we’ll remain a zero-car family.

What do you think? Should we purchase a car?

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