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Originally published November 29, 2011 at 9:57 PM | Page modified December 1, 2011 at 6:11 AM

Danny Westneat

$800 tow in Seattle: Legal, but is it right?

In Washington State, there is no regulatory limit on what tow trucks can ding you for when impounding your vehicle from private property, such as an apartment building.

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes The reason regulation comes into play in any unregulated or unregulated industry is... Read more
quotes That's just plain wrong. $800? Why not $8000? Why not just confiscate the car then? ... Read more
quotes I am normally all about free market capitalism, but this is predatory, outrageous and... Read more

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Few things are as aggravating as finding your car just got towed. But in a crowded place like Seattle, most likely you chalk it up as the cost of living in the city.

That's what Chris Swanicke was ready to do when he came out of his Capitol Hill apartment late one Friday night and saw his Mazda truck was gone.

But then he learned just how dear the cost of living in this city can be.

"I parked where I shouldn't have, for an hour, until I could move it onto the street," he says. "They had every right to tow me. But I never expected this."

Though Swanicke called the company, Citywide Towing, before his Mazda had even arrived at the tow yard, and came to pick it up when the yard opened the next day, the fee to get his truck back buckled the 25-year-old's knees.

It was 800 bucks. More than a month's rent.

Swanicke felt he had no choice but to grimace and pay. He got in touch with me to ask: Isn't there a limit to what tow trucks can charge?

"I was expecting it to be $200 or something," Swanicke says. "They have complete leverage over you. You don't choose them. It felt criminal."

It isn't. In fact, not only is it legally OK to charge $800, but Swanicke theoretically could have been charged twice that or more. There is no regulatory limit on what tow trucks can ding you for when impounding your vehicle from private property, such as an apartment building.

Tow companies are required only to file their list of fees with the state. The state has no input into what those fees might be.

The state Department of Licensing sent me Citywide Towing's fee chart. It showed Swanicke got off easy, amazingly enough. Citywide charged him $250 an hour, for two hours of work, plus $298.25 in weekend retrieval fees, storage charges and taxes (his final, total bill was $798.25.) The rate sheet shows Citywide could have charged a whopping $600 an hour.

"We charged him less than our state-approved rates," said a manager at Citywide ("Customer service is in our DNA!"), who did not give his name before he hung up on me.

"So I'm lucky the bill wasn't $1,500?" Swanicke says.

There is no state approval of rates. When it comes to tow rates, it turns out, Seattle and the other towns around here are more like the Wild West.

Many cities in other parts of the country cap private towing rates. In Minneapolis, it's $212. In Indianapolis, it's $150. In Portland, it's $157 plus $3.80 per mile towed (so Swanicke would have paid about $190 if he lived there.) But here, tow companies can charge whatever they please.

If you get towed off a public street, most likely the city or state has negotiated a lower rate in exchange for putting the tow company on their call list. Public tows tend to be around $150 to $300. The manager at Citywide told me he was bidding to be a contractor for the city of Seattle's tow team, and the rate for that can be as little as $65 an hour.

So why did you charge this poor kid quadruple that rate, I asked the manager. And why is your posted rate 10 times that? It seems like you're gouging, I said.

"Well, you do what you do, and we'll keep doing what we do, which is to follow the law," the manager said.

I was going to suggest that following this law will be really easy — because there is no law relating to tow charges — but that was when the manager hung up.

Even some other tow truck operators say $800 for a tow is greedy.

"That is outrageous," said Al Runté, of Ibsen Towing in Bellevue, who helps run the Towing and Recovery Association of Washington.

Runté said it's true there is no cap on tow rates in cities in this state, as there are elsewhere. But the free market, combined with pressure from law enforcement, keeps tow rates reasonable, he said. He suggested this $800 tow is an aberration.

"If you do a price like this, you're going to be under severe suspicion," Runté said. "You're going to end up in The Times! But you aren't hearing many stories like this. That should tell you that most tow-truck operators aren't doing what this one is doing."

"We all know Citywide," he added.

All right, let's crowd source this one. Can anyone top this $800-tow horror story? If it's an extreme outlier, well, maybe we don't need a cap on tow rates. Maybe everything is working just fine.

Swanicke says his motivation for contacting me was simple: He can't be the only one.

"I bet this happens every day in Seattle," he said. "There should be some sort of law, because if they can get away with it, they will."

He added: "I know these aren't the right words, but I feel like I've been robbed. It's almost worse, though, because it's legal. It's legal robbery."

Seems like about the right choice of words to me.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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