I live in a large city and do not currently own a car. I use public transportation, ZipCar, Uber, and a bike to get everywhere I need within the city. For bigger trips outside the city, I have been renting a car on weekends here and there, but have been considering buying or leasing a car.

Does it make sense to buy/lease a car to only use it somewhat infrequently on the weekends? The way my math works out, I could buy a $20k car and sell it five years later for perhaps $10k, costing me $10k for the duration. Supposing a rental car is about $50/day, I could rent a car for 200 days for the same price (40 days/ year), and not have to worry about any maintenance, parking, insurance, or other issues related to ownership. I estimate I'd only really rent a car for around 20 days a year, putting me well below the break-even point. Even though short-term rentals are expensive in the long term, it doesn't seem worth it to buy/lease a car I'm never using on weekdays. Downsides to renting include the time needed to actually go rent the car, but I would expect this to about even out with needing to take an owned car to the shop, as well as moving it between on-street parking spaces to avoid street cleaning tickets.

Am I missing something in my reasoning? Is short-term rental a viable option for a scenario in which the car will be driven only on infrequent weekends?

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    Does the $50/day for rental include insurance, since you aren't covered under a separate policy? I don't think you're missing anything, cars are expensive to own. – Hart CO Apr 27 '17 at 17:53
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    @quid looks like only 20 rental days per year are expected. Even a free car could easily average over $1000/year in upkeep/insurance/registration. – Hart CO Apr 27 '17 at 18:14
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    Other factors to consider are time & expense of getting to/from the car rental space, whether rentals charge by miles or days (e.g. you go for a week's vacation, but only drive the first & last days), adjustment to unfamiliar cars, &c. – jamesqf Apr 27 '17 at 18:16
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    @MichaelC. Obviously they are different, but both end up with me being responsible the car on a daily basis for several years with regard to insurance, maintenance, parking, etc. – Nuclear Wang Apr 27 '17 at 18:30
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    @quid Yeah I can't imagine not owning a car, but I also can't imagine living in a large city. – Hart CO Apr 27 '17 at 18:54
up vote 31 down vote accepted

Prior to having children we did exactly what you describe. We would visit my mother in law about four to six times a year, a 350-mile-each-way trip for a weekend. We'd simply rent a car, drive down, drive back, return it, out $150 or so for the weekend, a total of under $1000 a year; far cheaper than owning.

You should factor in whether you will save money, though, on things you might not immediately consider. Will you spend less on groceries, in particular, if you can drive to Costco or Sam's Club (or even just to a regular grocery store)? I doubt you'll save the cost of the car ($2000/year as you say), but it's possible it will factor into the mix.

I definitely would discourage purchasing a new car, if you're considering the financial side primarily. I suspect you can get a used car - maybe the $10k car you would've sold - and spend more like $1000 a year on it, or less. I don't know if I'd go to the $5000 level as those in comments suggested, as if you're doing long trips you want something with higher than average reliability; but even a car like a 5 year old mid-level sedan, easily costing you less than $10k, would be fine and likely sell in 5 years for $5k itself while hopefully not having too much maintenance (especially if you choose something with lower mileage; shop around!). But even with those assumptions, 20 days a year of rental which you can probably get less than $50 rates on (particularly if you look at some of the car sharing options, Zipcar and Enterprise both allow you to do longer term rentals for reasonable prices) seems like a fine deal compared to the hassle of owning.

I think your math is fine, and also consider insurance costs and the convenience factor of each scenario. Moving a car frequently to avoid parking tickets will become tedious. I'd rather spend an hour renting a car 20 times in a year rather than have to spend 15 minutes moving a car every three days. And if there's no other easy parking, that 15 minutes can take a lot longer. Plus it'll get dirty sitting there, could get vandalized. Yuck.

For only 20 days/year, I don't see how owning a car is worth the hassle. I recommend using a credit card that comes with free car rental insurance.

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    Another +1, including the credit card. Around here (Canada), insurance from the rental company is something like $29.99 per day (I guess they add the taxes on top of that too). When I decided to sell my car, the first thing I did was shop for a no-free card with car rental insurance. It's usually on cards with annual fees, but there are a few free ones out there. – MetalMikester Apr 28 '17 at 14:31
  • Also, depending on the city, finding a place to park it (or a new place every 3 days or whatever) may be difficult and/or expensive. – stannius Apr 28 '17 at 16:01
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    Absolutely. Parking in a city is a total nightmare. Vandalism was shockingly not a problem though, and you would take my word as definitive if only you could see the spots I'd been parking in those many years! – Harper Apr 29 '17 at 1:59

My wife and I have been car-free since 2011. We spent about $3500 on car shares and rentals last year (I went through it recently to flag trips that were medical transportation and unreimbursed work related for taxes). This compares favorably with the last year of car ownership.

  • I had reached a point I started needing $200+ repairs every couple of months and the straw that broke the camels back was a (dealer mechanic estimate but still) $3000 estimate to pass emissions inspection.

  • Over 11 years the value went from $24000 to $3600, so it depreciated about 2k per year.

  • I was easily spending $40 per week on gasoline on my last commute.

I now use transit with the IRS commuter benefit so I do have a base after tax transportation expense of 1200 per year. We use weekend rentals about 2x per month (and do use a warehouse club) She uses rentals for her job about 12 times per year, and the medical transportation came in an intense burst.

Access: Our nearest carshare pod is 0.22 miles (3 blocks); there are two hotels with full service rental car desks about half a mile from our house and every brand at the Amtrak station a mile away. There are concrete benefits to density, take every advantage.

Insurance: I always take the rental company SLI daily insurance for $15 per day. Certain no annual fee credit cards automatically include CDW. Every time an insurance agent cold calls me, I ask for a quote for a "named non owner" policy, I'd probably take it if the premium was $300 or less per 6 months.

Tips and tricks: a carshare minivan or truck rate is probably higher than a carshare car, but compared to a full service rental, may be much lower .

The best value I spend no time in my life looking for a parking spot, and spend "this hour" tapping away on SE on a train instead of driving.

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    I did the bulk of my car-free living prior to 2004. It made sense even then, and the mobile Internet (tablets, LTE, WiFi on transit) changes everything. I was an early adopter and used a tethered radio-modem with my laptop, but it was too clunky to be practical. Didn't work on the train and the buses were too crowded. Phones and tablets just make it ridiculously easy! Oh, and there wasn't any ZipCar or bike rentals either. – Harper Apr 29 '17 at 2:30
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    Good that you mentioned a "non owner" liability insurance policy. Car rental agreements (and even the credit card automatic coverage) are generally designed for people renting a car after flying into another city, who have their own insurance. I've been asked for proof of insurance before when renting (I think only before I turned 25, though). – Ben Voigt Apr 29 '17 at 5:54

For so little use, you are probably better off not owning a car. Car ownership has high fixed costs and unexpected ones like repairs. Difficult parking makes it worse.

If you do buy a car, you probably shouldn't buy a new $20k one. A used car will depreciate much less.

Be aware that if you own a car, you will end up using it much more than you thought. That may be good or bad. When you already paid the fixed costs, using it feels almost free, so you will start driving where you used to bike to take public transport. Then you will notice that parking in the center is annoying, so you will start shopping at big stores out of town.

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    +1 for that last paragraph. And I should add: A car that's not used often enough develops its own share of potentially costly repairs. My mechanic often said "you need to drive it more" when replacing certain parts that just rusted (etc) due to minimum use. I would sometimes find myself having to drive it around just to give it some mileage. Not as fun as it sounds (compared to, say, 25 years ago, driving with all the numbnuts out there can be very unpleasant...) – MetalMikester Apr 28 '17 at 14:36
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    Absolutely. When I got carred, it changed my life. Gradually at first then a lot. Instead of walking to meet my friends, I'd "leave late" and then have to drive and then struggle to park. I no longer wandered the city for fun and no longer discovered a new shop every day. I ate at national fast food chains instead of the wonderful restaurants in the city. When I tried to drive to them, I got mad because I couldnt park. It was insidious. I allowed myself to be priced out of the city since I can also live in Carland. I did choose a place near transit but it's nowhere near as good. – Harper Apr 29 '17 at 2:37

For a long time I did just as you did. I had a car, but I didn't drive it. Even if you NEVER drive a car, it still has a cost. You still have to insure it and you still have to register it.

On top of that a sitting car will have costs. Cars are not built to sit.

I found it to be much cheaper to take a "taxi" then to own a car. Eventually I got rid of my car, and we (my wife and I) just rented any time we needed to go somewhere long distance.

Very recently we purchased a car and kids change things, and we want kids. SO better to do this costly move now (in our minds). But still if we travel outside of town, we still rent.

A car is, usually, not good at constant "long drives" as the maintenance costs get high, and they are, usually, not good at "no driving" as they are not built to sit still. They are best used, usually, for shorter, in town, or "next town over" style driving.

Keep in mind I am in the USA so "long and short" drives have a different meaning. A 200 mile trip is about the line we draw before we just rent. But that's our preference. Some of which is because we would prefer to take the train and rent there then drive the entire trip.

  • Actually, if you NEVER drive a car, you don't have to insure or register it. – Glen Yates Aug 6 at 17:41
  • You usually do, check the local laws. Many cities require an actual active tag and insurance even if its o your lwnd. – coteyr Aug 6 at 17:51
  • I've had uninsured and unregistered (and I might add, untitled) cars for over 25 years. To re-register for street use, you may have to provide proof or an affidavit that the car was undrivable or otherwise under repair during that time. – Glen Yates Aug 6 at 18:00

Car clubs are designed for your use case. They (are supposed to) feature (some or all of) local 24 hour availability; hourly rates for things like big shopping trips; whole-weekend use; insurance isn't your problem.

If one is available in your area it's well worth a look. You may find that for longer trips a conventional hire is cheaper, but membership fees can be low (another variable between schemes is the tradeoff between the membership fee and the per-use fees).

Rocky is right on the money, +1 from me. I will adjust the convince and money issue:

You don't mention your country, but here in the US several companies make it very easy to rent. For example, with a reservation National will allow you to pick any car you want. Just walk up, jump in, and ride away. Avis and Hertz will have your car ready, just find your name, go to your spot and jump in and go. All the paperwork is done electronically in both cases.

Enterprise will come and pick you up, at just about any location, bring you to the shop and allow you to do the paperwork there. I am not sure if that paperwork can be done electronically, but perhaps it can. They will do the same in reverse once the rental is over.

The key here is budget. You will save a lot of money by renting when needed over your peers that own a car. However, you will need to plan to have the money each month.

I'd plan on having 50*2*4.*75 = 300 in a four weekend month, and 375 in a five weekend month. Carry over any excess not spent to the subsequent months. You will be well ahead of the game and not feel restricted in spending the money to rent.

There's more to owning a car than just the expense. Taxi or Uber isn't a good solution for the end of the night when your date is a little bit drunk and wants to park somewhere and jump in the back seat with you. If you're married and have kids, a car will help you with taking the kids to school or day-care. If you're single with no kids, a car can help you get married and have kids. People in China joke that BMW means Be My Wife.

  • Typically, it's me who's a little bit drunk at the end of the night, making a taxi the better solution. – Nuclear Wang Apr 30 '17 at 15:47

protected by Chris W. Rea Aug 6 at 11:36

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