As my husband climbed out of our Mazdaspeed Miata with a bright-red impact driver in hand, I covered my eyes. There were two large men standing near his old 2006 Honda Civic coupe, parked at a local body shop with its front and back ends crumpled from separate wrecks. My husband was on a mission to get his license plates back, and I didn’t know whether those men — presumably on break from fixing other wrecked cars — would try to stop him.
But I did know they’d never succeed. Not when he was this mad.
That’s how we learned to never sell a car with the plates on it, no matter how nice or trustworthy the buyers might seem.
Months earlier, my husband had listed his salvage-title, paint-damaged Civic for sale after buying the Miata. The Civic was the ideal beater car — far from pretty but mechanically perfect — and he sold it to a young buyer who didn’t yet know how to drive its five-speed manual transmission.
The person who accompanied the buyer to purchase the car test drove it for them, giddy at the thought of getting to teach someone a new skill. They started early, too — on the drive, we watched the two swap seats in the car we still owned without asking our permission. The buyer stalled the Civic at least six times at a stop sign, leaving us to grit our teeth from afar. (Four hours after the sale, my husband would get a text: “I need another clutch. I burned it out, and I was wondering if you had one.” He did not.)
A few hours and $2,400 later, our old Civic was on the way to its new home. My husband signed all of the relevant sale papers but ignored his intuition about one crucial thing: the license plates.
Every “How to Sell Your Car” guide said to remove the plates, and that’s generally what should happen: The seller keeps the plates and the buyer uses temporary ones until they can transfer the car into their name. But my husband assumed a cheap beater like his Civic would be easier to sell if the potential buyer didn’t have to go through all of that trouble. They’d have a little breathing room to not get pulled over before getting plates of their own, plus there weren’t any toll roads within an hour of where we lived. The buyers drove away promising to get all of the paperwork and new plates sorted as soon as possible.
Over the next few months, we started getting toll bills. Lots of them. Houston. Houston. Houston. Austin. Houston. Houston. Austin. Austin. The buyer drove all over the state of Texas, photographed once every few days with the same plate — our plate — as the toll cameras flashed over their head.
Each time, my husband called the relevant toll authority and waited on hold to tell them this wasn’t his car anymore. Each time, he got more annoyed.
“Remember, dear,” I would say. “We don’t know the buyer’s financial situation, and fees like registration make even cheap cars less attainable. Maybe they haven’t had the time or budget yet. Let’s not get too mad.”
But it kept happening. My husband kept waiting on hold with the toll authorities. The buyer wouldn’t text back about getting the plates changed. We were stuck, just like our old plates were to the Civic.
Then we got a call from a friend.
That friend, who’d previously seen the Civic running around town with fresh bumper damage, said his coworker got into a wreck. The cause? Our old Civic, now with crushed bumpers on both ends.
The Civic’s buyer gave the other driver their information for insurance, which seemed fine until: one, Google Maps said the address was made up, and two, we discovered the buyer had given the person they hit a different last name than they gave us. From what we could tell in our research, the last name they gave after the wreck was not real.
“Also,” our friend said. “The buyer told my coworker the car was registered to their mom, last name ‘Jones.’”
My husband’s last name is Jones. The car was registered to him.
At this point, it was clear what was happening. In not bothering to register the car, the new buyer was driving something that, in the eyes of the state, was still ours. This potentially left us legally liable for their misadventures. It had gone from “question” to “problem” faster than our turbo Miata could hit the quarter-mile.
The buyer, who regularly asked my husband for mechanical advice after buying the Civic and running its clutch through the floor, never returned my husband’s messages about the registration — even after he’d sat on the phone with an insurance company about a wreck he wasn’t in. But the buyer made one big mistake: They mentioned to someone involved with the insurance proceedings that the car was in for repairs. That was all we needed.
Not long after, we set off on a tour of the town’s body shops. We passed a few before catching a glimpse of the Civic, complete with our old plates and the exterior paint we’d watched wither into a bronze galaxy pattern over the years. We pulled into the lot.
So there I was, sunken in the passenger seat of the Miata with my hands over my eyes as my husband trotted across toward the Civic with his impact driver. He waved at the two large men whose gaze followed him, shouting “Howdy!” as he pulled off his wreck-crinkled front and back plates. He was soon back at the Miata, throwing the plates in the trunk and slamming it shut. The men hadn’t said a word.
“Told you it would be fine,” my husband said. “I’m sure it’s not the first time they’ve seen that.”
A few weeks later, my husband and I saw our old Civic again — back from its trip to the body shop and fresh as a baby’s bottom with new bumpers on either end. And much like a baby’s bottom, neither end had a license plate on it.
The headaches of selling a car end often when the buyer drives away, but that wasn’t the case with the Civic. We broke conventional wisdom, and ultimately, it was our fault that we wound up pulling some backwoods James Bond shit at the local body shop.
Unless you want to wind up there too, do me a favor. If local guidelines tell you not to sell your car with the plates on it, just listen.
Alanis King is an editor at Business Insider, and she previously worked as a staff writer and editor at Jalopnik. She likes cats and bad chain restaurants, and her book Rich Energy: The Book, covering the Rich Energy Haas F1 team, will be out in 2022.
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