Fork in the Road

Michael Perry

IT HAS BEEN THREE months since we closed on the sale of our home and drove away from the storage unit that contains everything we couldn’t donate, sell, give away or take with us. It was a big decision to have no fixed abode, and we feel great about it.

We’re about to move our rambling lifestyle across the pond to spend some time in the U.K. and continental Europe, and we have no return date in mind. That means our “living out of four suitcases” way of life is going to get real. No more four suitcases plus a couple of boxes, a shopping bag of extra shoes, and one of my 14 kettlebells in various nooks and crannies in the car. Keep in mind that the suitcases have a wardrobe for all four seasons, everything from shorts to synthetic down.

The kettlebell will be hard to leave but would also be hard to take along. I expect to struggle quietly with that decision for the next couple of months, but will spare folks that deliberation. I’ll focus on a different one that more readers can relate to: What to do with our car?

We have a 2008 Lexus SUV that we’ve owned since 2011, know very well and are happy with. Our four wheeled friend “Rex” had one owner before us who was as diligent about preventive maintenance as we’ve been. Rex is about to mark 140,000 miles and our mechanic estimates has many miles left to go. Yes, we’d like to have some of the comfort and safety features that come with newer models, but we’re in no rush to change cars.

Last year, when we went to Europe for three months at a time, it was easy to simply store the car in our garage. We’d fill the fluids, overfill the tires, disconnect the battery and, as they say, “Bob’s your uncle.” This time, our options are complicated not only by having no garage, but also by not knowing how long we’ll be gone.

An online estimate from CarMax says it’ll give us $5,000. Is that what it’s worth? No, that’s what we could easily and conveniently get for it, dropping it off on the way to Dulles International Airport. A better estimate of market value is what similar vehicles are going for, which some internet research tells me is around $10,000. No, that’s not based on Blue Book values, which I’m told are unreliable these days.

We found a good storage service that will keep the car covered and drive Rex within its compound, as well as run the heating and AC and cycle the power windows, for (gulp) $240 a month, with storage set at a four-month minimum. The service also has a more basic option that involves simply starting the car and letting it idle for 20 minutes each month for $180. But if it’s worth storing at all, it’s worth storing properly. Assuming we’re gone for a year, that’s at least $2,160, or more likely $2,880.

Unless an employer is reimbursing the cost, I suspect few people would spend that sort of money to store a $10,000 vehicle unless the car’s a rarity. Rex’s sentimental value probably shouldn’t move the needle much. Indeed, if we knew we wouldn’t return for a year, we’d just sell. The thing is, we don’t know. We may come back to the U.S. in a few months for whatever reason, and it would sure be nice to just fly in and pick up good ol’ Rex. What about renting a car instead? The cost for a month would be roughly what it might cost us to store Rex for a year.

There’s the middle ground of leaving the car with a friend or family member, but that comes with complexity of its own. How is it insured? How is it cared for? Anyone we can think of would still have it parked on the street. How easily can we get it back when we need it? Depending on the circumstances of where we need to be and how quickly, we might still find ourselves needing a rental.

It’s been a week since I drafted this article and we’re still no closer to a decision. Flights are booked. One way or another, a decision’s got to be made.

Michael Perry is a former career Army officer and external affairs executive for a Fortune 100 company. In addition to personal finance and investing, his interests include reading, traveling, being outdoors, strength training and coaching, and cocktails. Check out his earlier articles.

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