Answering questions about the Lotus and The Vermont Loophole
I’d like to circle back on two stories I wrote recently. Before I do, I wanted to let you know I’ve had a rough couple of months. My mother passed away in mid-July, and I mention it because it is both germane to the story and it shows how enthusiast cars and other passion outlets can be both producers and reducers of stress.
Title issues: Revisited
In my piece on July 15, in which I wrote about title issues, I mentioned “The Vermont Loophole,” in which you can legally register a car in the state of Vermont without being a resident—by mail, using only a bill of sale—as long as the car is at least 15 years old. I wrote that there are a number of reasons why one might want to do this, including buying a car without a title or whose title was incorrectly signed or dated. I included a photo of a title dated 2/16/2012 with the caption, “Depending on how persnickety your home state is, even an incorrectly-dated title can cause problems.” At the time, I had not actually tried using The Vermont Loophole myself.
What I didn’t say was that the photo showed the title to my ’74 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special.
As you know if you’ve been reading my weekly columns, I bought the Lotus six years ago. It spent most of that time sitting partially disassembled in my garage. When I finally got the engine rebuilt, the car running, then drivable and safe enough to be driven farther than around the block, I wanted to register it so I could legally take it on longer sort-out excursions. When I opened the folder, pulled out the title, and looked at it, I was reminded that I’d bought the car from someone who, as often happens with project cars, never got it running—thus never registered it and never re-titled it in his name. So the title wasn’t in the name of the fellow I’d bought it from; it was in the name of the fellow he’d bought it from (the son of the car’s original owner, who had parked the car in 1979).
A so-called “open title” like this usually doesn’t pose a problem. If the original owner has signed it, you simply fill in your information as the buyer, date it, and take it to the registry. If, however, the previous buyer filled in his or her information but never turned it in, then the title is no longer technically open and can be rejected by the registry.
A gray area occurs when the title is dated but not signed, and when I examined the title to the Lotus, I noticed that this was the case. The longer I looked at it, the more the 2012 date on the title rang a bell. As I said, Massachusetts is very persnickety about dates on titles. When I bought the car in 2013, I have a dim memory of thinking, “Even if the car isn’t running, you should register it now, while this date is only a year old.” But I never did. And now that date is seven years old. So it was unclear how easy it would be to register the car in Massachusetts, or what fees or penalties I’d incur if I tried.
This intersected with my personal life in a very odd way. This spring, my 89-year-old mother’s health began to deteriorate. I was spending a lot of time taking her to doctor’s appointments, staying with her in the hospital, and, near the end, sitting with her at home. Anyone who has been through this knows that, no matter how much you love someone, it’s painful and stressful, and you need an outlet. Something that brings you joy for at least a few minutes helps dispel the immeasurable sadness. Naturally, one of my outlets was my cars. I’d come home at the end of the day and try to do bunt-and-run repairs on the Lotus. I got the horn working. I wired up the radiator cooling fan to a switch so, if the thermostat didn’t automatically turn it on, I could do so manually. I installed the rebuilt front calipers I’d purchased. It didn’t really matter what I was doing; the laying-on of hands and the solving of problems was therapeutic. Continuing to plug away at the Lotus and dragging it closer and closer to functionality as my mother was being inexorably pulled further from this life was an odd juxtaposition, but I’ve always found that a big part of the appeal to wrenching is that it lets you control a small corner of this harsh world, or at least try to.
Thus, with my daytime hours largely occupied with my mother, and my not wanting to spend any of those precious hours waiting in line at the registry, especially for something that might not be successful, I thought I might try The Vermont Loophole for myself. Plus, as a journalist who was, at that point, in the middle of putting together the previous article about title issues, my curiosity was piqued. So I decided to take one for the team.
This link gives you the basics of registering a car in Vermont and contains another link to download the Vermont VD-119 (registration, tax, and title application) form. On motorcycle forums, there are a few other references to the procedure that talk about taking photographs of the car/bike, the VIN plate, and its location on the vehicle. I don’t know if they’re strictly necessary, but I took the photos and enclosed them.
Vermont, like Massachusetts, assesses sales tax on the low NADA book value, so I printed out the appropriate page from the NADA site, circled the value, and enclosed the printout as well. I wrote a cover letter and included a check to cover the sales tax (6 percent of the low NADA value), the $76 one-year registration fee, and $6 for the “warrantee fee,” which the instructions say applies to “each new registration.” I took all the documents, put them and the check into a USPS Priority Mail envelope, mailed them to the address of the DMV in Montpelier, Vermont, and waited.
In the interim, my mother passed away. Obviously, I was consumed by that and had zero time for anything other than dealing with the arrangements. The Lotus’ registration was the furthest thing on my mind, so having put the registration application in the mail and getting the process going appeared to have been the right call. But when the wave of grief receded, I was chomping at the bit for the distraction of finally driving the car. However, I still hadn’t received anything from the Vermont DMV.
After two weeks had passed, I checked the tracking information to be certain that what I mailed had been delivered and signed for. It had. I looked at my bank account online to see if the check had been deposited. It hadn’t. I checked my e-mail, including my spam folder, to see if there was any correspondence indicating that my application had bounced. Nothing there either. I tried calling the DMV in Montpelier to ask if there was a way to check on a mailed-in registration application, but I never got through. As time passed into the third week, I began to think that I’d made a mistake, but there was little I could do. I didn’t want to try my luck with the state of Massachusetts when the Vermont DMV still had my uncashed check. I simply had to wait it out, and it was frustrating.
Finally, several days later (and, by utterly coincidence, on my 61st birthday), my online bank account showed that the registration check had indeed been cashed.
Four days later (and a full three weeks after the DMV received my application), a license-plate-sized envelope arrived in the mail. Inside was a Vermont registration and a pair of beautiful green Vermont plates. The outside of the envelope included the words, “PLEASE NOTE: Your plate does not come with a validation sticker. One will be sent to you in the mail.”
I put the plates on the car and the registration and envelope in the glove box so that if I got stopped for driving a car without a sticker on the plate, I had the supporting documentation. Then I drove the car legally for the first time.
As Etta James sang, “At laaaaaaaaast.”
Unfortunately, as soon as I drove the Lotus, I discovered that one of my newly-rebuilt calipers was bad. But that’s another story.
A few days later, I received a small envelope from the Vermont DMV. Ah, I thought; it must be the validation sticker for the plate. But when I opened it, I laughed. It was a check for six bucks. I hadn’t needed to pay the “warrantee fee” after all. The validation sticker arrived later.
So, The Vermont Loophole is totally real. Totally do-able. As long as you aren’t in a rush.
Adding up the costs: Revisited
I was stunned at the number of comments here and on my Facebook page about adding up the cost of my Lotus project. Many were hilarious, but some were deeply philosophical.
In my first book, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, I talk quite a bit about how cars intersect with family dynamics. Some of those dynamics are financial. Passions are beautiful things, but I’ve never understood why some people feel that because a passion is automotive in nature, or because someone subscribes to the philosophy of “do it once, do it right,” that gives the person a right to spend limitless amounts of money and make unilateral decisions on things that should be family financial matters. While I appreciated the good-natured comments that, for example, $20K spread over 10 years is only about $5 per day—and that’s a reasonable cost for satisfying one’s passion—that struck me as a mechanism for denial, and part of my reason for adding everything up was to not be in denial. At the same time, I’m not as far-left-brain as the fellow who posted, “I’m a budget guy, and if there’s no hope of coming in on budget, then I don’t even start.” (Although, man, I wish I had your clarity and discipline.)
I intentionally showed the article to my wife and told her the final number. She was as surprised and concerned as I was, and she should be. As I’ve mentioned, one of my wife’s passions is that she is an avid quilter, owns multiple sewing machines, and goes on quilting-related trips. I don’t ask her what she spends any more than she asks me, but I think that if her activities drained 20 grand from the family budget, I’d want to know. That’s what a good relationship is all about.
To me, this is about more than just passion. Yes, we need passions as salve for the pain of life, whether that’s going into the garage for an hour at the end of a bad day, wanting to lay hands on tools, fix a problem, and not talk with anyone, or whether it’s going to a Cars and Coffee event on a Sunday morning to hang with other like-minded weirdos. But it’s also about balance and choice. I don’t have unlimited funds, and that much money has to come from somewhere. If that means I need to sell one of my other cars, that’s a choice I should be prepared to make.
One of the best pieces of advice about parenting my mother ever gave me was this: “If your children show interest or passion in something, treat that like a flower, because if you don’t, you’ll kill it with neglect, or worse.” If I’ve been guilty of anything, it’s over-applying that advice to myself and using it to justify some of my own excesses.
Look, we all stumble forward and figure these things out as we’re going along. Hopefully we neither drive our families into bankruptcy nor crater our relationships with our family members as we’re learning. But the “learning” part of it is important.
There is a lesson to be gained from the Lotus’ cost, in terms of underestimating the time and the money involved, and I’d be a fool if I didn’t learn it. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever invest time and money in a project again, or that the flames of my automotive passion will be doused in any way. But a little (or a big) reality check once in a while is a good thing.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 33 years and is the author of five automotive books, including Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning. All of his books are available on Amazon. You can also order personally inscribed copies here. Siegel’s new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back the Car My Wife and I Drove Off From Our Wedding, will be released later this year.