Dude, Where Are All Our Cars??

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The estimate from the moving company seemed outrageous, $2542, to move my wife’s compact Mazda from the DC suburbs to our new apartment in Los Angeles.

I decided to see if I could do better.

In the process, I got a glimpse of California’s economic meltdown.

First I tried calling other major moving companies, places that had shipped cars for my friends. The competition immediately produced gains — a series of estimates between $1,400 and $1,600 — for the identical service. But on the phone, a kindly mover noted my itinerary — “going to California, eh?” — and suggested I might do well by submitting my particulars to a web site used by companies in the business of transporting autos.

I did. And immediately, I found myself to be a hot commodity, at the center of a bidding war between auto transport companies. They emailed twice a day. They called the house. With each email and call, the prices dropped further and further.

I checked out the firms, narrowing my choice down to four that had good reputations. Each tried to entice me with more and more discounts. On a lark, I resubmitted to the web site, and got a new list of quotes that were all a few dollars below $1,000. One company called and said they knew I could get it for less, but the truck drivers were angry about gas prices and wondered if I would accept a small $25 fuel surcharge. I said no, and he immediately relented.

I finally decided to take a quote of $900 from a Florida firm. I called up the operations staff to schedule the pick-up. When I mentioned the quote, she at first refused.

“No way,” she said. “That quote is too low.”

She explained $900 was below cost for a cross-country car shipment. But I gave her the reference number for the quote, and it checked out. She said she would call me back.

Ten minutes later, she called back.

“We really need your car,” she said. “We’ll honor the quote.”

Why was my car so in demand? She said she had had a look at the market for cars. The auto moving services were flooded with requests to move cars out of California to other states in the East and the South. Customers who wanted to leave the state now have to wait more than a week for a truck to pick them up. But there were almost no cars headed to California from the East. Trucks were actually returning back to the Golden State empty.

My wife’s Mazda, because of its California destination, was a hot commodity.

She recited the company’s policy: “We have up to 7 days to pick up the car.”

But less than an hour later, she called me back to say they had found a truck for me. That very afternoon, a truck came by, and the Mazda began its journey to California.

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