San Francisco

The Whopping $4,800 Towing Bill and a Push to Limit Towing Rates


What to Know

  • Paperwork shuffle hikes bill to nearly $5,000.
  • Towing rates vary a ton by city: Sacramento is $32 day while Oakland is $100 a day.
  • Assemblyman David Chiu said it needs to stop and has introduced a bill to help rein in towing fees.

Nancy made a simple mistake: She blocked a driveway in Oakland one night. But solving that simple mistake became complex -- and costly.

“We had to pay $4,800,” she said.

We’re not using Nancy’s real name at her request.

So, how does towing one car within one city one night run up a bill that exceeds many people’s monthly rent? Let us explain.

Nancy says she sought to retrieve the Toyota Rav 4 the day after she was towed. But neither the towing company nor Oakland police would let her get it back. The problem was that only her dad’s name was on the title, and he had died in January.

“They said in order to get the car back it was a complicated process,” Nancy said. “We had to go to Toyota, figure things out with them, get the title, get the loan transferred to my name.”

Nancy says she spent two months ironing out the paperwork. We confirmed with Toyota that a time frame of up to two months is typical to modify a title. When Nancy was finally cleared to pick up the Rav 4, the towing company handed her that massive bill – which included storage fees of $90 per day for 66 days. 

“I left the place feeling like all they cared about was the bottom line, and they definitely were not empathetic toward my family, my situation,” Nancy said.

We asked the tow yard to review Nancy’s case. It declined.

State law does not cap towing and storage rates, but cities can -- and do. We wondered how much the cost of getting towed varies around California. So, we called two dozen cities around the state to find out.

The rates we found are all over the map: Storage was cheapest in Sacramento at $32 per day; it was most expensive in Oakland, where the max is $100 per day. 

The base fee when you get towed varies even more: from $168 in Palm Springs to $537 in San Francisco.

“The disparities in these fees obviously suggests that there’s something strange going on here,” said state Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco.

Chiu told us it’s time for the state to rein in towing fees. He’s sponsored a bill this year to limit cities’ towing authority and the fees they charge.

“The stories of individuals who might have made a mistake, for a split-second when they parked their car on that street on a particular night, that spirals into thousands of dollars in debt, and economic disaster, that’s what I have a real problem with,” he said.

The NBC Bay Area database of consumer complaints contains hundreds of viewers who are upset about towing. Many ask: Why is it so expensive? 

So, we asked the tow companies’ lobbyists, the California Tow Truck Association.

The CTTA noted high costs for land, labor, security, and regulatory compliance. They also said that maximum rates are approved by local law enforcement.

We wanted to know why Oakland’s storage rates were the highest we found in the state. But the city declined to comment. 

“I feel that the system is broken,” Nancy said. 

She’s still out her $4,800. Nancy appealed her case, explaining the paperwork delay due to her dad’s death. But Oakland upheld the $90 per day storage charges. She believes towing as a whole needs an overhaul. 

“I didn’t feel that any of the parties were very helpful along the way. Nobody was,” she said. “It was really up to us to try to figure things out on our own.”

When Nancy’s father died, dealing with the car title was not priority one. That’s understandable. But, after a loved one dies, you do need to attend to their affairs as quickly as possible -- especially when you need to transfer ownership of cars and property. As we learned, it’s not an immediate process. So, you’ll want to start the paperwork as soon as you can. 

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