Wednesday, June 20, 2012

@!#$%ing MassDOT

The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (formerly called the RMV -- now re-branded as the snappy-sounding MassDOT) has had, since the Dukakis administration, a policy where you pay sales tax on a car not on the basis of what you actually paid, but on the book value of the car. While I understand and appreciate that this was triggered by years of rampant under-reporting ("No! Really! I paid a hundred bucks for it!"), it is still manifestly unfair.

And the rising values of the kinds of classic BMWs I buy have not gone undocumented. Because of the number of cars I go through and my tendency to buy them beat up and with very high mileage, I have probably overpaid these taxes more than any twenty combined families. Several years ago, I bought a '73 BMW 2002 for about two grand. It barely ran, had dents in every body panel, a rust hole in the nose big enough to stick my hand through, and was missing most of its interior, but I was assessed taxes on its then book value of $8,000 (for old cars, they use the low retail value in the NADA Classic Car Guide). If you complain about it at the Registry, they'll hand you an abatement form. It was so ridiculous that I followed the process of application for abatement all the way down the rabbit hole. I wasn't surprised that the abatement request came back denied. What surprised me was the reason. And they don't tell you the reason in English; they list a code you have to look up in a table. When you find it, essentially what it says is that the abatement form is for many kinds of taxes, and they don't grant abatement for this kind of tax (motor vehicle sales tax). Well then why the hell do you have the registry hand out these forms? Grrrrrrrrr......

But there is one loophole. If you buy a car from a dealer as opposed to a private party, then and only then does the Registry use the value you actually paid, the rationale being that the dealer has to record each sale so it's verifiable, unlike your word, which is, of course, worth nothing to them. But buying from a dealership simply to get this benefit is like intentionally being homeless in order to get the great free health care, only in reverse. I of course wander willingly into used car dealerships the same way I walk willingly bare-breasted through batches of poison ivy, roll willingly in stagnant mosquito-infested water, etc.

Until today. I needed a truck for vacation and I saw, on Craigslist in southern New Hampshire, a high-mileage 2000 Chevy Suburban with 8-passenger seating, working 4wd, and working air conditioning, for $2995 -- substantially below market value. It was at a small used car dealer, but they had excellent BBB accreditation and I liked the honest way the seller presented the vehicle in the ad and on the phone. I dropped everything and drove up to Hampstead, checked out the truck, and bought it on the spot. 

AND -- I thought -- FINALLY, because it's bought from a dealership, I'll actually pay the sales tax on the three grand I paid, not on some fictitious book value.

I went to my insurance agent, who did the transaction with the registry via computer (as opposed to physically going to the registry) because I was transferring plates from another vehicle. I reminded her that the car was bought from a dealership. She said she'd see what the registry said.

When she handed me the paperwork, I was assessed $300 tax on a $2995 purchase. "That's not right," I said. "I bought this truck from a dealer."

My insurance agent explained that she asked the Registry, but their policy is that unless the dealer is A MASSACHUSETTS DEALER, you're still assessed tax on the book value.

10% motor vehicle sales tax.

Nothing pithy here. No Dave Barry-esque ending that wraps back to the beginning. Just simply very pissed off.