I’ve been down or hobbled (well, first down, then hobbled) with the flu for two weeks, barely able to spend fifteen minutes in the garage without heading back upstairs to nap. This has caused me to turn to less-stressful activities like paying the bills. (Well, less physically stressful activities.)

I own twelve cars at present count. The dozen is comprised of Maire Anne’s 2013 Honda Fit, the 1995 Winnebago Rialta small RV (a VW Eurovan with a Winnebago camper body on it), the 2004 X5 stick sport that’s ostensibly my daily driver, the 2003 530i stick sport that it replaced, the 1999 Z3 M coupe, six vintage BMWs (the ’79 Euro 635CSi, ’73 3.0CSi, ’72 Bavaria, and the three 2002s), and a ’74 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special. I like laying out the list this way because it makes it sound almost defensible. The cars aren’t all here at the same time; as I’ve written, four are garaged in Fitchburg, about 50 miles west. I try to manage their needs in as cost-effective a fashion as possible; it’s not like any one of them, much less all twelve, is undergoing something even resembling restoration.

Still, sometimes there’s no getting around the fact that I own a lot of cars, and even managing expenses like Ebenezer Scrooge, the cost of ownership does add up. Some expenses, like gas, aren’t a big deal, since I can only drive one car at a time. Others, like annual registration and inspection, come due at staggered times, so I don’t ever see the whole number multiplied by twelve.

But when all of the annual excise-tax bills come from the City of Newton, I feel slapped in the face by my own frivolity and lack of self-control. The bills might as well say “excess tax.” Yesterday, nine identical envelopes arrived. Why nine and not twelve? I had to go down the list and figure out it’s because the Lotus is registered in Vermont (until I replace the cracked windshield, it’s uninspectable in Massachusetts) and the 530i and the Rialta are currently off the road for the winter.

It’s interesting to look at the excise-tax bills.  The mass.gov website says, “The excise rate is $25 per $1,000 of your vehicle’s value [2.5%]. Your vehicle’s value for excise purposes isn’t the actual purchase price or ‘book value’ of the vehicle. Instead, it’s a percentage of the manufacturer’s list price in the year of manufacture.” This is an important distinction, because when you first register a car in Massachusetts, you are assessed a one-time sales tax on the “book value,” and the “book” they use is the NADA guide, which is well aware of the appreciating values of vintage BMWs.

Instead, for the excise tax, mass.gov lists the following table:

Year Assessed Taxable Value
first 90%
second 60%
third 40%
fourth 25%
fifth and after 10%

So if you own a car that cost $50,000 new, after five years its taxable value falls to 10% of that, or $5,000, and you’re assessed a 2.5% annual excise tax on $5,000, which comes to $125. For those of us who own 1970s-era cars that cost five to ten grand when they were new, the annual excise tax runs from $12.50 to $25 per car, which is a pretty minor annual fee. If, however, you spend five grand to buy some depreciated nightmare of a late-model BMW or Mercedes that cost $100,000 new, according to the formula, the excise tax will bottom out at $250—and that number will follow you around forever.

Below is a table in which I list each car, what I estimate its value to be (in the case of the eight Hagerty-insured cars—the vintage BMWs, the Z3M, and the Lotus—those are the actual agreed values on the policy), the assessed value according to the state of Massachusetts, and the 2.5% excise tax. The assessed value of Maire Anne’s Honda Fit seems low (not that I’m complaining), but the values of the X5 and 530i (I’m using last year’s bill) are spot-on. The tax on the X5 is low because I just bought it last fall, and it’s pro-rated. I can’t find last year’s bill for the Rialta, so that one’s blank, and the Vermont-registered Lotus escapes Massachusetts’ clutches. As we get down into the fun and valuable cars starting with the Z3 M, the assessed values deviate wildly from their market values, for which I am grateful!

Make Year Model Estimated Value Assessed Value Excise Tax
Honda 2013 Fit $4,500 $1,706 $43
BMW 2004 X5 $4,000 $4,030 $17
BMW 2003 530i $2,500 $2,563 $103
Winnebago 1996 Rialta $10,000
BMW 1999 Z3M $18,000 $1,430 $36
BMW 1979 635CSi $8,000 $500 $13
BMW 1973 3.0CSi $55,000 $1,173 $29
BMW 1975 2002 (Bertha) $4,000 $1,425 $36
BMW 1973 2002 (Hampton) $18,000 $1,173 $29
BMW 1972 2002tii (Louie) $22,000 $751 $19
BMW 1972 Bavaria $10,000 $790 $20
Lotus 1974 Europa $10,000

Now, I could quibble and back-calculate the supposed MSRP (for example, the $36 on Bertha the ratty ’75 2002 would mean that its new price was $14,400, which is patently ridiculous), but in general, even when multiplied by ten-ish cars,  these are tolerable cost-of-ownership numbers.

As long as I don’t accumulate a fleet of depreciated M760is and i8s, I think I can keep these bills paid. Even if it really is a tax on my own excesses.—Rob Siegel

Rob’s new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back Our Wedding Car After 26 Years In Storage, is available on Amazon here. His other books, including his recent Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, are available here on Amazon. Or you can order personally-inscribed copies of all of his books through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.

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