Earlier this year, I got a new car.
Financially, I was not really ready to get a new car; I had hoped to save another year and have a bigger down payment set aside. However, my previous car had slowly begun producing a light amount of smoke from under the hood, the “Service Engine Soon” light would intermittently light up then go out, and I had started noticing an ever-so-slight burning smell inside the car.
The indications were a serious repair bill was, as the saying goes, not far down the road.
My car dealer found me a deal I wasn’t expecting at a great interest rate I likewise wasn’t expecting for a monthly payment closer to my goal than I was expecting.
So I thought everything was good to go. And it was, until the state’s DMV had to get involved.
My previous car was 14 years old. I purchased it used, just one year old, from a cousin who, at the time, sold former rental cars.
Let me give you a little timeline. In late 2002, I purchased the car in Columbia, South Carolina, where I lived at the time. In January of 2003, I relocated to Richmond for a few years, then came back to South Carolina in 2007. I didn’t pay off the car until October of 2008, so the car was purchased and paid off in South Carolina.
Naturally, because the law doesn’t give me a choice, I originally registered the car in South Carolina when I bought it, then registered it in Virginia when I moved there, then re-registered it in South Carolina when I returned. Each time, I was given no indication — none whatsoever — that there were any issues with the status of my car registration or the car title.
When I paid off the car, I received what I assumed was the car title. It turns out that it wasn’t a title, though it had the title number on it. Instead, it was only a Certificate of Lien Satisfaction, a document that essentially says, “You don’t owe us anything more on the car.”
When I attempted to trade in the old car at the dealer, I was informed that I needed to go to the DMV and pick up the car title and bring it back to them.
No problem, I thought. Big problem, it turned out.
Let the stupidity begin.
The trouble started right away at Charleston’s DMV when I was waited on by a short older lady who clearly hadn’t had a nice day and decided to share the wealth of her frustration with me. She looked up my car’s vehicle identification number and told me I needed to go to the state in which the current title had been issued.
“I’m standing in it,” I said, explaining that the car had been registered in South Carolina for more than seven years. She huffed and clicked her tongue and looked again. She hit some buttons and looked up something else.
“This is the problem with moving from state to state,” she muttered under her breath, but loudly enough that she obviously wanted me to hear.
Silly me. I thought this was America, not the old Soviet Union. I was reminded of the scene in The Hunt for Red October when Ramius and Borodin discuss what they hope to do when they get to America. Borodin says he wants to go from state to state, then stops himself and asks, “Do they allow you to do that?” Ramius confirms you’re allowed to move from state to state, with no papers in America.
What a concept!
I guess this woman wasn’t a fan of the movie.
Anyway, she told me I needed to go to the Virginia DMV and get the car title from them, because they had never sent South Carolina the full title.
More than seven years after I registered the car in South Carolina, I am just now finding out that this state didn’t have the documentation it needed? Little Miss Grumpy explained that South Carolina had issued an “incomplete” car title, pending receipt of the “real” car title from Virginia, but Virginia never sent it.
So South Carolina produced a fake document for the sole purpose of charging me annual property taxes on the car, and never told me there was a problem.
But until Virginia sent South Carolina their car title, South Carolina couldn’t issue me the final title.
But wait, it gets more ridiculous.
When I was able to get someone from Virginia’s DMV on the phone — which was an accomplishment in itself — I was told that their records show the title was transferred from Virginia to South Carolina the same month that I relocated to South Carolina.
When I explained that South Carolina claims it never received any such title from Virginia, that state’s DMV worker placed me on hold so she could research the situation, then came back to me and said the problem was that Virginia had issued a “dummy” registration form while it waited for the original title to come from South Carolina.
You see where this is going, don’t you?
Until South Carolina sent Virginia their original title, Virginia couldn’t complete their “dummy” title, and therefore couldn’t send South Carolina what it needed to complete it’s “incomplete” title to hand me the final title.
When I brought this little detail to the South Carolina DMV, they argued with me, assuring me that they had, in fact, transferred the title to Virginia in January, 2003, despite the fact that Virginia claimed they’d never received it.
“Well, here’s a simple way to fix this,” I told the SC DMV worker. “Just resend that document to Virginia so they can finish their paperwork and send you what you need.”
You see, I’m all about common sense and cutting through the crap to solve the problem. Clearly, I think too logically for state government. This is the primary reason you’ll never see me wasting my time to run for office.
“Oh, no, we can’t do that,” an SC DMV worker assured me. “The original title is closed because we transferred it.”
I got Virginia’s DMV on the phone and told them that. They still need to send us the paperwork, their employee said without missing a beat.
Then I had a hunch: the lien holder, headquartered in Nashville, had to have had the title from the time I bought the car in South Carolina until the time I paid it off in South Carolina. Why not just cut out the middle man altogether and get them to send South Carolina the copy of the title they had — which would have been a South Carolina title — and just have the SC DMV process that.
Nope, SC DMV said. Since Virginia was involved, Virginia had to have their hands in this.
While all of my part of the negotiations was happening, incidentally, the title manager at the car dealership was in communication with the SC DMV Columbia office, attempting to work her contacts to get the issue resolved. Unfortunately, she was having the same success I had.
Even more unfortunate: she said this kind of snafu happens all the time.
She was, at one point, “this close” to getting the issue solved: The Columbia office told her it would issue a title if the lien holder would mail them a copy of the Certificate of Lien Satisfaction. But the bank, out of a desire to protect my privacy, wasn’t interested in mailing or faxing that document to anyone other than me. I finally got them to agree to fax the document to the DMV office. They said they did, and at about that same time, the Columbia DMV office suddenly stopped responding to the dealer’s phone calls.
I suppose it’s naive for anyone to believe government should operate more efficiently than this. I don’t consider it naive, however, to suggest that government ought to have a simple, customer-friendly procedure in place to help citizens when such a snafu does happen.
By this point, nearly two months had gone by since the day I purchased the car.
The closest thing I could find to such a procedure was to write a four-page typewritten letter (and you thought this post was long!) to Gov. Nikki Haley’s office. I explained the situation, pointing out that two state agencies refused to budge in a pointless tug-of-war of which I was trapped in the middle. As a taxpayer, I requested that the governor’s office compel the head of the state’s DMV to order his agency to stop with the foolishness and issue a title.
Within two days of sending that letter via certified mail, my phone rang. It was the governor’s office, and they wanted to confirm a couple of points. The employee was very nice and apologized for the problems I’d had. He put me in touch with the constituent relations office with the DMV — I didn’t even know there was such an office. The employee there, who had been informed of the problem, asked me a few follow-up questions, including the name of the person with whom the dealer was trying to work with.
By the end of the week, I received a call from the car dealership: they had received my old car’s title.