Dear PoPville – Should I buy a car?

Photo by PoPville flickr user dullshick

“Dear PoPville,

Help! I need readers’ advice on a question that’s been on my mind lately. Should I buy a car? I’m originally from one of those fly-over states where kids start driving in diapers, and having one just seems part of life. I always say I feel so transitory unless I have the freedom and flexibility to hop in a car and take a day (or weekend!) trip to anywhere. I’ve had a ZipCar membership for 4 years, and while I love its convenience, I still really want my own wheels. I would probably get a used car (under $5k), and I wouldn’t drive to work or routine city-wide activities. I live in Mt. P, so I feel like I could find parking relatively easily.

Seems like most of my DC friends think I’m crazy to get a car, so I thought I’d ask for the advice of perfect strangers instead =)


107 Comment

  • Seems to me that you have your mind made up already and just need the reassurance of strangers.

  • All of those friends who are now calling you crazy will then start asking for rides once you do get a car …

  • Living in MtP made me want to get rid of my car. Preferably with a gascan and a book of matches. Parking was an utter fucking nightmare. No, really. I can’t state it strongly enough.

  • If you can afford a car, and you really want a car, why would you NOT get a car?

    CAptcha: Ffuk

  • Get a car if you want a car. There’s really nothing else to add here.

  • Cue the car haters! Especially for you, since you live close to metro and from the sound of it, would only be using the thing once in a while (ie, it’s not a necessity, strictly speaking).

    I predict you’ll get ripped up one side and down the other.

  • I feel you. You don’t really need one. A bike and metro is all you need. But you get that urge every so often to get out of this place. I recommend a motorcycle. Cheap and fun.

    • I have a car, bicycle, and motorcycle. If you own a house like I do and have to make Home Depot runs to get lumber, plants for the yard, etc. a car is convenient. Lugging groceries on a bicycle or motorcycle is a pain.

      Having said that, a car in this town is a non-necessity. A nicety, sure. I can afford one, so I have one. I have off street parking where I’m at.

      A motorcycle is fun when you want to get around town without arriving drenched in sweat, they’re easy to park, and are great on days when you don’t feel like pedaling. Plus you can leave the city and have a fun ride out somewhere, all while getting 50mpg.

      Bicycles are convenient, you can hop on the bike trail, park it on the sidewalk, etc.

      I maintain all three because each has advantages/disadvantages.

      On the car thing, if you can afford it and it’s not a hassle to park, etc, it is a nice thing to have. Do what you want and not what you’re friends and random strangers on POP think.

      • saf

        “A motorcycle is fun when you want to get around town without arriving drenched in sweat, ”

        I dunno. Putting on the gear in this weather… ugh.

        • Depends on the gear. For the summer, I wear a kevlar mesh jacket, it breaths really well. For pants, I wear kevlar reinforced jeans for rides in the city, and kevlar mesh pants for higher speed trips involving the beltway and beyond.

  • If you’ve been able to exist without one, DO NOT get a car. No matter how cheaply you buy, you’re going to be coming out of your pocket WAY more than you can anticipate. Insurance, parking, registration, vandalism/burglary/theft–it’s never ending and the cost of all of that goes up if you park on the street. Trust me–just don’t.

    • MichelleRD beat me to it. Unless you (a) can afford maintaining a cheap-o $5K car system (b) want to replace numerous windows and (c) don’t mind losing a side-view mirror every once in a while, don’t get a car. Plus, DC car insurance is expensive because other drivers in this city (read: cab drivers) SUCK at driving.

      If you’re comfortable using Zipcar and public transit, stuck to it. This comes from a fellow car owner…

    • Insurance is really not bad in DC, especially if you’re just using the car for errands. Northern Virginia, on the other hand…

      • em


        Insurance in DC is significantly more expensive in DC than in NoVA. I just moved from Arlington and my insurance (for an 8 year old Pontiac) went up about $200/yr.

        • do they still hace a yearly car tax in va

          • em

            Yes, there is a personal property tax in VA and a decal fess to prove that you paid your tax – so that does knock off some of the difference in insurance premiums. It is however a little more expensive to register a car in DC vs. VA. I think that an on street parking decal for Arlington was $24/year (although the flash pass, which was good for one car per household, was free) – so slightly more expensive than the DC Residential Parking Permit.

            All that said, having a car for non-Metro accessible errands, trips to Great Falls, weekend getaways to visit family/friends or relax, going fruit picking, buying furniture or bringing home groceries for a party, etc. is very handy. I drive ~ 1 or 2 times a week (sometimes less) and have a garage parking spot, though – so I also don’t have to worry about some of the problems associated with on-street parking.

        • I just moved to DC from Fairfax County and my 6-month policy went down from $1275 to $700. I can’t say I’m surprised– NoVA is such a dangerous place to be driving around. Sure, your chances of smashed windows are higher in DC, but your odds of getting into an accident (especially a high-speed accident) are much much lower. Em, you must be an anomoly because I’ve heard it’s generally more expensive in NoVA.

        • Em, do you work in Arlington and drive out there from DC now? If that’s the case I can see why it might have gone up since you’re driving more.

          • I know Em. She works in DC and doesn’t drive, so that’s not the issue. I wonder if it varies based on where in VA, where in DC, and what insurance company.

          • oops, when I said “doesn’t drive,” I meant “doesn’t drive to work.”

  • I live in Columbia Heights and have 2 cars (one SUV and one hybrid). So I so, buy one if you want one.

    Just don’t get mad when someone hits your car as when it is parked on the street. Also you are not allowed to complain about parking tickets. That’s just life in the city.

    • Sure you can complain about parking tickets — as long as it’s an improper citation. Due process.

      Now, if you’re bitching to the effect of ‘doesn’t this city have anything better to do than paper windshields of people running 5 min. late’ — the answer is no. . . no they don’t

      • DC actually has a fantastic system for appealing parking tickets. It’s annoying that resources have to be wasted by parking enforcement giving out so many improper citations in the first place, but at least it’s easy to get them dismissed.

        • It’s only easy if you know about the tickets in the first place. Otherwise, after 60 days, you just have to pay… as I found out when DC booted my car for two tickets (issued within minutes of each other) that they didn’t bother to tell me about. I guess we’re just supposed to check the DMV website every 30 days to make sure.

          Guaranteed you will get parking tickets in this town though, whether they leave them on your windshield or not. Sometimes the signs are completely contradictory on the same signpost.

          • “I guess we’re just supposed to check the DMV website every 30 days to make sure.”

            In all honesty that’s what I do. For the most part I’m parked in front of my house where I shouldn’t be getting ticketed, but you never know.

          • I must be an anomaly. I have lived here since 1989, had a car since 1992, and have gotten one parking ticket in all that time – in Silver Spring no less (I was in a store getting change for the damn meter when I was ticketed). I admit that I had parking off street all that time, but I have always been a big driver around DC and have never gotten a ticket in the city. Of course, I’ve never parked illegally either.

  • I have an old car that’s long been paid for; I only drive it maybe once/week but find it’s really convenient to have when I want to run an errand where metro isn’t convenient or if I’m running late for something and don’t have time to wait on a bus. And of course you can pick up and head out of town on a whim. I wouldn’t get a nice car, especially if you’re going to be street parking, but a cheap beater with low insurance premiums is well worth it in my opinion.

  • I agree with the vast majority. If parking isnt going to be an issue then get one. I use my bike for the vast majority of things, but when I need to pick up something large, or buy a ton of groceries, or visit friends in suburba-land, its worth it.

    • +1

      Same here. I’ve had a car for 6+ months now after 5 years of Zipcar or rentals, and love it for the flexibility on weekends and grocery runs in the rain (as opposed to my bike).

      Certainly a nice thing to have. I echo others about ticketing, etc. Also prepare to endure the DC DMV…hell on earth.

      • I use the DMV in Georgetown, and it’s really not that bad as far as DMVs go. My experiences there are better than DMV experiences in VA, CA, and other states I’ve lived.

      • i’ve been a driver in dc for 15 years and have never had a hard time at the dmv.

        not hell at all to me, and i’ve found dc gov employees to be very nice.

        sorry your experiences was otherwise.

        my suggestions are to go the second week of the month. on a tuesday. around 10 am.

        do not go at the end of the month.

      • You haven’t experienced hell on earth until you’ve tried the Virginia DMV. It’s as if they want people to give up and drive illegally.

        DC is actually quite good.

  • I’ve heard if you haven’t had a car in years the insurance premiums once you enter the pool again are really high. I’m in a similar boat, but doubt I’ll get serious about getting a car soon due to parking issues around Logan and the above insurance issue.

    • I was car free the first six years in DC and that wasn’t the case for me when I bought a car about a year and a half ago. Granted, it’s old (1998), so perhaps that has something to do with it.

      I’ll never be without a car again. Ideally, I’ll never be without a Mustang again. :p

    • I was care free for 5+ years and got a very good rate on insurance, with full coverage.

      Shop around, you will be able to find a good rate.

    • I had this come up when getting a car – the author’s car insurance under Zipcar should count, so he should be unaffected by that particular cost

    • The mileage you put on the car also affects your premiums. If you’re not driving all that much, it’s not going to be that costly.

  • +1 on having to take into account unexpected expenses like someone driving by and knocking off your sideview mirror.

    I recently sold my car (with helpful hints from the PoP community) and I haven’t missed it yet.

    • In MtP, that’s not an unexpected expense. I lived there for 3 years and went through a mirror every six months, without fail, the whole time.

      I wouldn’t get a car without hinges on the mirror and would make sure not to buy one with power mirrors – that shit is expensive.

      • Agree – just yesterday a bicyclist passed me on the left while I was stopped for a red light and nearly took off my mirror. Gotta have hinges! And girl – you could have apologized!

  • No. Having a car is way more trouble than it’s worth.

  • Do you like to escape the city? Go to Great Falls, Roosevelt Island, Carterrock? The mountains, the beach? Do you have friends in Arlington or Md. that otherwise require a convoluted trek on Metro & bus? Are you happy to look casually for a decent “beater car?” and pay cash when you find it? Figure $1,000 a year for that, plus insurance etc. and do the math, then a cost/benefit to you.

  • I will sell the OP my car (’97 Volvo in decent shape) for $5k or less if he/she is ready!

  • …I still really want my own wheels…

    Okay, then get a car. It’s an added expense and hassle, but you already know this.

  • I agree with most of these folks (I have a truck, scooter and motorcycle) – don’t expect it to stay in perfect condition, you’ll certainly be discovering new scratches and dents on a monthly basis… but that’s the city for ya. I’d also invest in some window tinting and a club. I hardly ever NEED to drive, usually I use the truck only on weekends unless it’s raining/thundersleeting.

    • Don’t clubs not work? Pretty sure I saw a video where they use the extra leverage provided by the club to break the steering (ignition) lock, then cut the plastic part of the steering wheel itself and pop the club out of the wheel?

      Anyway, I’m surprised I still see so many “Club”s in use in DC.

      Oh, and parking my car can be a pain in the ass but I do enjoy having the associated freedoms.

      • I use a Club; didn’t know there was supposed to be anything wrong with them.

        Surely it’s better to have a Club on your steering wheel as a deterrent than to have no anti-theft device at all.

      • you’re misinformed about the club

      • @ Patrick,

        Those people are not using the club correctly. You are suppossed to angle it so that it is pinned towards the windsheild in a way that the steerting wheel can’t move. True, someone can cut the steering wheel, but at least the club deters those thieves who do not have the correct equipment to do that. I use the club on my car, and believe it is one of the best deterents.

  • If you really want it fine, but if you’ve lived without it and don’t desperately need it, then you probably don’t. I look forward to the day when I don’t need a car. Its just a hassle and I’d rather save and spend my money on other other things. To each his own.

  • I like having a car in the city. My Zone 1 parking permit is only $75/year. If you’re not driving it often, you only have to move your car once a week for street cleaning. If you get a reliable car, maintenance isn’t really that bad. Get a very common car that won’t cost extra to maintain.

    I think that unless you use zip car or rentals quite a bit, people who live without a car miss out on some of the features of the DC area. You can hop in and go for a day trip to the beach, drive out to Eden Center for some good Pho, drive down to VA for a wine tasting. I love having that flexibility.

  • i do not have a car – but i will say the times that i wish i had one are when i want to get out of the city on weekends. i wouldn’t use it to get around DC, but to get out. there is a lot of beautiful countryside in MD, VA and VA that i am missing out on. i have friends in baltimore who i can only visit on weekends if i get a ride, unless i want to shell out for amtrak since the commuter trains don’t run on the weekends. i know i can rent a car for a weekend, but i never seem to actually do that for a camping trip or whatever. anyway, if you can afford it, are willing to deal with parking etc., and can make sure it doesn’t make you lazy and complacent, go for it.

  • Oh please – if you want one, get one! I moved into the District from Maryland two years ago. I had a car that got destroyed while it was parked on Georgia Ave. by a woman who had a diabetic episode(totally random). However, I got another car. New, small and inexpensive. I have a parking space behind my house (two actually), and I love having the freedom to jump into it and ride whenever I want to. I take the bus to work, but the convenience of being able to go when I want to is priceless. Yes – there are costs up front and perhaps repairs down the road, but that is the cost of ownership. I had a Zip car membership after my car was totaled. Hated it. You have to know in advance when you are going to need it, walk (or ride) to pick the damn thing up, then hope that Zip car does not change your reservation b/c the car you reserved is out of commission, which means you then have to travel farther to pick the damn thing up. Not to mention, I question the cleanliness of those cars. Even though there are break-ins in the city, as long as you do not keep anything valuable in sight, you should be fine. Just my two cents.

  • Get it if parking will not be a problem. When I lived in San Francisco, I had a motorcycle and no car, but I can’t stand the thought of living in DC without a car. I don’t use it much – 2 year old Prius & I just broke 4200 miles – but I am glad I have it when I need it.

    I’ve had a dent or 2, but like others say, that’s city car-ownership.

  • We went 3 years without a car. Metro is great. Zipcar is great (irritating at times). But when you need to drive to the in-laws in NY, or the other family in TN, it’s then when you *really* need a car. Cheap weekend trip at the beach? Not unless you have a car. We’ve been to the rental counters at DCA & Union Station so many times I could pick up a car blindfolded. It’s miserable.

    We caved earlier this year. Parking in Adams Morgan is a pain, but we only drive it on the weekends and during the day, for the most part. Sure, the costs are high compared to not having a car. But the convenience of having one, in our situation, far outweighs the price.

    And, after 3 years without a car, the insurance premium was around $55/mo when you break down a 6-mo policy. Not too shabby.

    • We thought about getting a car when we moved to Petworth (i.e. more available street parking). But we realized we could spend a TON more money on zipcar and weekend car rentals without coming close to the total cost of owning (purchase + insurance, repair, gas, etc.) I was inspired to respond to your post in particular because we still do have fun weekend trips to the beach and such without owning and with very little hassle. There are rental car companies like Enterprise, Avis and Thrifty in downtown DC, so no need to go to the airport! In fact, airport rentals are generally more expensive. I wouldn’t begrudge others’ decisions to buy, but I can’t imagine it being worth it from a cost perspective.

  • Look at the total cost you spend on cabs zip car and car rentals each year. Then the cost to have a car, which will be just for insurance and zoning and such at least $1500 plus the cost of gas, maintenance, random windows being broken and the car itself.

    Also, having a beater myself (that came with my husband) factor in any of those rentals that you will still have to make for longer trips cause the beater won’t make it.

    Then see if you would rather spend the difference on the car or something else. Personally, I’d take something else but hubby needs his car for his job.

  • get a vespa


    Question to car owners: Can you break down the costs for permits, on-street parking, registration, etc. in DC for us non-car owners? Someone told me a parking permit was $300 a year? That sounds INSANE. What else do I need to add to the cost tally? (that actually has a number, broken windows are another pita).

    • If I remember correctly:

      Registration: $72/year
      Residential parking permit (on-street parking in the zone you live in): $10/year

      An off-street parking space is likely to run $150 to $300 a month, depending on the neighborhood.

    • Inspection: $35/2 years
      Registration: $72/year (less for hybrids or electric vehicles)
      Residential Parking Permit: $15/year

      You should look on the DMV website instead of listening to your friends.

    • RPP is $15/year, registration $72/yr, inspection $35/two years. Liability only insurance on my older car runs about $50/month. You will also have initial costs including excise tax, title, plates. If the car isn’t worth much the tax is minimal I think. Unlike some states, there is no annual property tax on vehicles in DC.

    • I can’t even remember all the fees, so just educated guesstimating:

      -registration ~$70/year
      -inspection ~$35/2 years
      -residential parking permit – no idea, been fortunate there
      -incidental parking and tickets (you will get tickets unless you simply don’t drive) ~$200-600/year
      -moving violations ~$50-300/year
      -maintenance varies but expect the unexpected like flat tire, windshield crack. Go cheap, but not beat up or the costs will pile up. DC streets are rough
      -insurance has so many variables but you’ll pay more if you’re: living in DC, park on the street, are male, in your 20s, in an accident even if it wasn’t your fault.

      • Parking and parking tickets are no more than $50 a year, in my experience, though it depends a lot on where you live and drive. Moving violations should be zero unless you’re a reckless driver or spend a lot of time driving in Fairfax County. Also, you shouldn’t be paying more for insurance by living in DC (unless you’re comparing it to living in Iowa or something).

  • If you want one and you can afford $1,000 -$1,500 a year in maintenance, parking tickets, and liability only insurance then go for it.

    But after living in Mt Pleasant for 3 years with a car, I would only get one with hinges on the non-power mirrors. I lost at least 1 mirror every six months and power mirror replacements are expensive!
    Also, learn to deal with dents and scratches.

    But the time I save on trips to the grocery store, dr visits, trips out of town, etc. is worth that to me.

  • GEICO for your money, y’all!

    • +10 for Kanye quote.

    • Don’t go with GEICO; they are absolutely horrible.

      • Geico has never treated me anything but wonderfully. I’ve been with them for years, even before living in DC.

        Two bright citizens attempted to steal my car last Wednesday and Geico was on top of things at 5 in the morning, towed the car, inspected it within a few hours, made my rental reservation, automatically extended it, and in general did me right–as they have every other time I’ve ever needed them for anything.

        • I got rear-ended by someone. No damage to either vehicle but we exchanged insurance info just in case. Dude calls Geico and tells them I caused all this damage to his car. Geico takes his word for it– no questions asked even though I’ve been with them for years and have never been in an accident– and my rate doubles. I drop Geico and go with Progressive and have been happy ever since.

          • Don’t blame you one bit. If they did that to me, I’d drop them too. They didn’t give you the opportunity for an appeals process?

          • Nope. I fought bitterly with numerous nasty customer service agents (I guess Progressive, etc. took all the nice ones) but they just led me around in circles.

          • Same thing happened to me with Geico, the bastids.

  • Um, could you re-phrase that as an ethical question?

  • My two cents- I’m From Atlanta which is a ridiculously car-centric city (several major streets don’t even have sidewalks, the transit system is very limited, and cabs are scarce and crazy expensive). I lived and worked there and never had a car. I finally got one right before I moved to DC. I do not use it often (mostly weekends) but enjoy it when I do. It allowed me to do things that aren’t on the metro lines (evening gymastics class in VA, stock up using my Costco membership frequently, picking up visiting family and friends from BWI or Dulles, Not to mention jumping in a car w/ air conditiong is lovely when I have a busy schedule on those sweltering summer weekends when walking or biking would leave me drenched (like this upcoming weekend). Insurance and missing side view mirrors are expensive. But I don’t use much gas since I rarely drive.

  • My partner and I share a car, which is the ideal scenario, but even when I was single I felt it was worth having. Since it’s a 6-year-old Hyundai that’s been paid off and is in good condition, it only costs me on average about $200/month in gas, insurance, maintenance, inspection, and registrtion fees. Not bad at all. I do a lot of weekend trips, visiting family and whatnot, which would be difficult and more expensive by bus or train. And my partner uses it to see her elderly mother out in Fairfax County; there’s no public transit that goes out to her house. I guess if your home, your work, your activities, and all your friends and family were contained within DC, and you lived in a neighborhood with good public transit, you could get by without a car, but I think it’s a smart idea to have access to one.

  • Also – if you get a beater Honda or Toyota – (like pre 2000) – be sure to get an anti-theft device – the club is worthless, but a simple brake-locking floor brace thingy will deter. These are very sought-after cars for stealing.

  • Don’t underestimate the difficulty of finding street parking.

    I’ve lived in D.C. (in Adams Morgan) for nine years and had off-street parking for seven of them.

    When I had street parking only, it wasn’t _impossible_… but it was a hassle. If I came home directly after work (I was driving to work in Maryland every day), it wasn’t too difficult to get a spot. If I came home later than that, it usually wasn’t too bad on a weeknight.

    If I drove anywhere on a Friday or Saturday night, there was no point in coming back before 2 a.m., because street parking was next to impossible to find. And even on weekends during the day, finding a spot could be a hassle.

    In my experience, parking in Mount Pleasant tends to be pretty competitive (although maybe that’s changing now that fewer houses are rented out as group houses to twentysomethings).

    Give serious thought to how often you’d be driving (and thus needing to find a space again when you get home), and take note of things like street cleaning (i.e., days you’ll have to move your street-parked car, even if you’re not going anywhere).

  • For me it’d be a simple cost-benefit analysis.
    I can get around without a car very easily (bike, bus, metro, cabs, and walking). When I need one I have zipcar or hertz/budget.

    If I were you I’d see what the total costs are and see if its worth it. Often the cost of insurance and maintenance will be equal to about 2-3 daily rentals at hertz.

    It might be worth it to get a non-car owner policy so you can save on insurance when renting a car and then go a year/6 month renting when you need one and see if it is doable – it’d be a really low cost expirement.

  • Cars are wonderful. Don’t let some hippie tell you otherwise, especially because they’ll be the first one trying to bum a ride. Husband and I only put about 5K a year on our one car, but it’s worth having one. Just don’t get one that’s too expensive or that you’ll be unhappy about when it gets dinged, because it WILL get destroyed. Folding mirrors are a must. Go small, it’ll make parking easier. I haven’t found insurance to be any more expensive here than in VA, and far less than when I lived in AZ. It’s awesome having the ability to go anywhere I want in the area, load up for road trips, visit friends in the burbs, take my dog to the vet and haul all the groceries I want. Cars forever.

    • Yes, AZ is VERY expensive for insurance, not exactly sure why. My VW was the same $$ to insure there than my Saab here in DC.

      I also say, If you want a car, get it. But get the car that you want. It is not a need here, it is a luxury. I have a car because I like it, not need it. I still walk to work, and it feels great to drive for pleasure. I also do not like doing rentals because I am picky about what I drive and only like standard transmission, for other people rentals and zip cars work great, and I respect that.

  • Get the car. You know you want the freedom.

    Here’s my advice, having owned a car in Adams Morgan and U St:
    1) Don’t worry about it getting broken into. So long as you don’t leave anything of value in the car, and so long as you have what looks to be a shitty stereo, your windows won’t be smashed.

    2) Be prepared to move the car on street cleaning days. This is the biggest pain in the ass about owning a car in DC.

    3) Don’t rent a parking space. Just be prepared to walk a few blocks for parking if necessary.

    4) Don’t waste money on comprehensive insurance. For a car under $5k, just stick with liability.

    5) When you’re looking at cars, ignore the cosmetic looks and just worry about the mechanical condition. As you know, parallel parking is brutal on bumpers. But do have any car checked out by a mechanic.

    • This is all great advice!

      I have a Hyundai Elantra hatchback and couldn’t recommend it more for driving in the city. It’s small and easy to park, and the hatchback makes it easy to transport pieces of furniture and other big things that wouldn’t fit in a trunk.

  • Naturally, it depends on how much you value the flexibility. I have a car. Althought I hate parking and driving in the city and I use it as little as possible, I still couldn’t live without it. It’s nice to have for grocery runs, hauling stuff, and visiting some of the less metro-accessible parts of town (but zipcar could work pretty well for those purposes). It’s essential, however, for getting out of town and doing it quickly. I realize there are rental car agencies, but they’re a pain in the ass too, and depending on how often you travel, not really less expensive than owning. For me, the ability to walk out my door one Saturday morning and decide to go for a hike in the Shenandoah or to the beach or to visit my folks is priceless.

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