Never leave your mother alone on Christmas—even if your mother insists that the holiday isn’t a tradition for her, and that you and your sister should go see your paternal grandmother while your stepdad goes to see his daughter in North Carolina. Oh sure, it may seem like she’s OK with this arrangement, but even for someone who doesn’t celebrate the holiday, being alone on Christmas can cause an unexpected meltdown.
It was a few days after Christmas in the winter of 2007. My dad dropped me off at my mother’s house to pick up my car, a 1996 green Mazda 626, which I considered the love of my life. I’m allergic to all animals great and small, so this car was the closest thing I ever had to a pet. I was the vehicle’s sole driver, it lived with me at college, and I paid for maintenance, repairs, fees and gas. My mother hated the car, begrudgingly paid for half the purchase price, and called it “Experiment 626″, a reference to disaster-prone Stitch from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch. When we pulled up to the house, Stitch wasn’t there.
“You’ll notice your car is not in the driveway,” my mother said, as soon as my dad left.
“Yes,” I replied, “Did you move it to the back driveway because it was clogging up the front driveway?”
“No,” she said. “It’s gone. I got rid of it. You’re going to have to buy a new car. And I’ve kicked you off my insurance, so you’re going to have to buy car insurance too. And you’re going to have to find a way to get back to your apartment and get to work every day.”
She then proceeded to explain that while my sister, my stepdad and I were busy not spending Christmas with her (despite her permission, mind you) she had noticed that my car was one month overdue for inspection. She reasoned that if I crashed the car in the future, and if the crash was with another vehicle, and if the people in the other vehicle were injured severely enough, they might sue her for allowing a vehicle titled in her name to be driven around uninspected. So as was her right to dispose of property titled in her name, she had disposed of it—without telling me, or anyone else for that matter. Note that she was describing a theoretical situation, and I had not been in a car accident for almost four years. And we could have had a normal adult conversation about this before her rash decision.
Had she discussed it with me, this is what she would have found out: Yes, I was aware the inspection was overdue. However, there was a large crack in the base of the windshield, and it would not pass inspection unless it was replaced. A mechanic friend quoted me $600 for new glass. I estimated that I would be getting a total of $600 in cash from various relatives for the holidays, and thus could pay for the windshield on the spot, which I figured would be more responsible than adding it to my ever expanding black hole of credit card debt.
It was news to me that the vehicle we had purchased jointly was titled solely in her name. It was unfathomable that according to the paperwork, the largest purchase I had ever made did not belong to me at all. And the threat of calling the cops to report a stolen vehicle, which had been on the tip of my tongue the whole time, evaporated into hopelessness.
Of course, a person can’t actually steal property they have a title to. A person can, however, constructively steal it, thereby constructing a situation in which the victim of the constructive theft is in a worse position than an actual theft because not only is there no car, there is no legal remedy either. If you have jointly purchased property, and you’re the one who is supposed to be in possession of said property, make sure your name is on it. It’s a lesson I learned too late.
To raise money for a down payment on that car, I instated an emergency ban on all spending, except for the cost of getting to work. I ate rice and sold my clothes on eBay to raise money. Generous friends bought me groceries sometimes. I drove a borrowed mini-van that probably shouldn’t have been on the road. A tear or two might have escaped my eye every time I saw a green Mazda 626 while out driving.
Things worked out. A month later, I drove a brand new 2008 Toyota Corolla off the lot. I could never have gotten a car that nice without the help of my stepdad and dad. The three of us convinced my mother that there was no point in ruining me financially before law school by forcing me to take on a purchase greater than a year’s worth of in-state tuition. But that purchase wouldn’t have had to be made in the first place if we had all sat down and had a calm, rational discussion about the legal implications of the 626’s ownership.
Here’s a rundown of what an unplanned intra-family constructive car theft will cost you and yours:
• Unplanned, the purchase did not coincide with any 0% APR offers. I paid 2.9% on $11,600 over three years at $339 a month. Happy Honda Days? VW Sign & Drive? Model Year End Clearance? Toyotathon? Apparently my mother has never heard of these events. Having lower monthly payments over a longer period of time could have freed up income to pay off credit cards which jumped from promotional rates of 4.99% to Recession rates of 17.99% during those three years. I also could have borrowed less during law school. Had I been given the time to save for a car, a larger down payment could have decreased the amount financed, further decreasing interest payments.
• The next model of Corolla came out that summer, and is currently worth between one and two thousand dollars more with similar features and mileage, according to Kelley Blue Book. Although this will not affect me now, it puts me in a worse position next time I buy a car.
• As I spent the majority of those three years in law school during one of the worst legal hiring markets since the Great Depression, tack on another 5.31% to 7.9% interest because although I had a student job, it was not a highly paid legal job. I often paid my monthly car bill with student loans on which I will be paying interest for at least the next few decades. Yes, even the highly educated do dumb things like paying off a loan with another loan.
• Under my mother’s original vision, I was supposed to purchase the new car on my own. In reality, my stepdad generously ponied up several thousand dollars for a down payment. During my first year of law school, he envisioned that I would focus on my grades and not work, so he sent me money to help with the car payments. My dad sent money during years two and three. I don’t think my mom would have disposed of the old car with such haste if she knew it would end up being such a financial draw on my other parental figures.
• The down payment was not without a few rules attached, among them that the car must be new. Buying a new car, about $5,000 was lost in the three seconds it took me to turn out of the dealership lot. Making $23,000 at my pre-law school job, $5,000 was not an amount I could afford to be throwing around. The “new” rule had further pitfalls in that insurance on a new car is higher than insurance on a used car.
• The cost of insurance could have been further reduced if my mother kept me on her insurance plan and simply asked that I cover my vehicle’s share. Again, I had not been in an accident in almost four years at the time, and over the next four years would incur a single speeding ticket, which my legal connections would ensure did not appear as points on my license.
• My mother even ended up paying for costs associated with getting rid of my old car. Originally, I was on my own for transportation. But the reality was that I had to get to work in a city with terrible mass transit. She lent me a malfunctioning Dodge Caravan. This car was truly an accident waiting to happen. It drove like it was drunk. The ailing brakes and bald tires failed to stop just short of a deer one night, and I hit the poor thing going about 0.5 mph. The impact was just enough to crack the headlight cover which my mother later replaced. I never figured out why she had no problem with this wreck of a vehicle being titled in her name, and exactly how it managed to keep passing inspection.
• In all of this, no one ever mentioned that we could have simply transferred title to my name, making me the liable party in the event of the car accident that never actually occurred.
According to my mother, I was supposed to learn some lesson about responsible car care from these events. What was actually learned was that it costs approximately $20,000, plus several decades of interest on student loans to leave my mother alone on Christmas. My stepdad and I make sure we are in town on Christmas, and my dad has not asked that I spend Christmas with his side of the family since. I dubbed the Corolla “New Puppy”, never missed a payment, and paid it off by the January before graduation. I still drive it.
People ask me when I’m going to get a “real lawyer car.” I tell them I don’t plan to give this car up. There’s nothing like a good financial disaster during the formative years of your early twenties to make you attach a disproportionate amount of emotional importance to an object. I went from the utterly hopeless position of having a car stolen with no money saved, and no legal recourse, to paying off a brand new car while attending law school during the worst economic downturn our generation has seen. Really, this car is my own Christmas miracle.
Stephanie Nott is an attorney in Rochester, N.Y. where she advises other people on how to get out of their financial disasters.