By Christopher Solomon
It hasn’t taken long for the tricked-out "whips" of rap stars in Dub magazine and sleek Hondas in Hollywood movies like "The Fast and the Furious" to influence the looks of what’s cruising the suburban streets of Anytown, U.S.A.
Well-heeled, graying hobbyists are enjoying a second childhood with "boomer tuners." Soccer moms pilot SUVs with 20-inch chrome wheels and in-dash DVD players and thumping sound systems. Gigantic pickups are festooned like sports cars with scoops, spoilers, stripes and aerodynamic ground effects.
"You’re seeing it in mainstream entertainment, you’re seeing it in music videos and movies and video games -- and heck, there’s 30 television shows that are on the air right now that are promoting and underscoring the satisfaction that you get from fixing up your car," says Peter MacGillivray, vice president of marketing and communications for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).
Shows like MTV’s "Pimp My Ride" and Spike TV’s "Ride with Funkmaster Flex" are popular. The specialty automotive industry in the U.S has grown 80% over the last decade and is now a $31 billion market, MacGillivray says.
The reason? "Vehicles are not an appliance anymore. They’re an extension of your personality."
Don’t do it for the investment
Your car’s new personality has a dark side, though. You’re a bigger target for thieves and insurance companies. You may actually hurt the value of the car. And you could make it less safe as well.
Simply put, a car is almost never a good investment (a few antiques and specialty cars excepted). That’s still true if you pour a small fortune into extras like a $200 Iceman cold-air intake (to improve power), $200 APC racing seats, special carpeting and a kicking, $2,000 sound system for your adored Honda, says Toby Ristau, manager of the popular J. C. Whitney aftermarket shop in LaSalle, Ill. When it comes to add-ons, Ristau has seen it all, including -- no kidding -- televisions in the floor and the taillights.
Yet heavily accessorized cars can struggle to bring even Blue Book value, he says. Cars are personal statements -- and people don’t want to buy someone else’s personal statement. "You would have to find a special person who would want that," Ristau says of a car with such changes. A few years ago, said Eddie Paul, the wizard engineer who built the "tuner" cars for the movies "The Fast and the Furious” and "2 Fast 2 Furious," "We put about $100,000 into a tuner.” Now, he says, "I figure we could get about $10,000 for it."
As the customization trend has taken off and gone mainstream, dealers have gotten into the act. Some dealerships now sell 50 possible aftermarket pieces for the Ford Mustang, for example, as well as body accessories for F150 trucks and Lincolns. Not surprisingly, dealers make it very easy to turn the rebates they offer into these accessories, or even pricier ones like headrest DVD players, says James Bell, publisher of IntelliChoice, which tracks car-ownership costs.
Think hard about exactly what you really want and need before biting, says Bell. You may not get that money back at trade-in time, he cautions, and "you don’t know what’s going to be popular with the person that’s going to buy your car" later.
Labor and paint not included
Adding cosmetic parts to cars is big, and one of the aftermarket additions of the moment is "Lambo door kits," says Ristau. These are $1,500 kits that make, say, a Honda’s doors rise upward like a Lamborghini’s. What many people forget is that the cost of such a transformation kit is just the start. "Another cost is that if they aren’t able to install the parts themselves," Ristau says. "It can be upward of $1,500 to have a (full) body kit painted and installed."
The huge, heavy wheels now sported by many vehicles today (sometimes up to 26 inches in diameter and decked out with rotating discs known as "Sprewell Spinners" after NBA star Latrell Sprewell) may be flashy and, at $2,600 or more apiece, pricey. But they’ve prompted some to worry that they "cause a lot of undue pressure on the braking system" and stress on shocks and the suspensions system that were not built with them in mind, says Bell. This could create expensive problems for their owners in a few years, he adds.
Be Honest with Your Insurer, Part I
If you’ve spent thousands accessorizing your car, or modifying it to enhance its performance, you might be tempted not to tell your insurer for fear of paying higher premiums.
Get over it, insurers advise. Why?
Let’s say you’re driving a hopped-up car that your insurer doesn’t know is altered, and while trying to pass another car you lose control and hit people standing at a bus stop. The insurance company might try to get out of paying, arguing that the loss wouldn’t have happened if the car hadn’t been modified in an unsafe way, and that you, the policy owner, have essentially committed fraud, says Ellen Anderson, president and owner of Illinois-based Rally Insurance, a broker specializing in insurance for antique and specialty vehicles.
"Is it likely that they would pay in a situation like that? Well, a 50/50 chance," she says. "You could really end up in a real financial jam in a situation like that."
"The biggest thing that I try to get across to the people that I speak to is that it’s always best to be upfront about what you’ve got," says Anderson.
But don’t expect honesty to make everything OK, either. What most worries insurers are modifications that greatly enhance the performance of automobiles, says Anderson. Tell your insurer that you want to bolt a nitrous oxide kit to the engine and add several hundred horsepower with the flip of a switch -- an illegal add-on for road use in most if not all states -- and you can expect to get a call telling you to take it off or tear up your policy.
Be Honest with Your Insurer, Part II
There’s another good reason to tell your insurance company about modifying your car: so they’ll pay if anything happens to your prized vehicle.
As the craze for add-on accessories has increased, so has theft. Earlier this year, for instance, a car owner in Houston awoke to find his Honda sitting on concrete blocks with all four wheels gone. Headrests containing DVD players are now stolen, and fancy headlights taken out of their sockets.
"Nobody’s taking radios anymore," says Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president for the Highway Loss Data Institute of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, sounding almost wistful for the good old days.
To compensate a car owner fully, an insurer needs to know beforehand about special items like $2,500 wheels, says Jon Osterberg, a spokesman for Pemco Insurance in Washington state. Otherwise, many insurers will balk at paying more than just the standard replacement cost for, say, wheels or a stereo.
In short, if you’ve outfitted your car with thousands in chrome and electronics, you need more insurance. Policy holders should talk to their insurer about buying what’s called an endorsement to cover the improvements they’ve made, says Tom Price, a product consultant for standard auto for Nationwide Insurance. The endorsement applies to the comprehensive and collision portion of the insurance, not the liability coverage.
Insurers are somewhat coy about costs. "At this point we really encourage people to talk to their agent because there is such a wide range of things that may or may not be done," says Mia Jazo-Harris, spokeswoman at State Farm Insurance.
Phil Ryba, manager of Vern Fonk Insurance, a broker for about a dozen national insurers like the Hartford and Safeco, says that many companies limit coverage for some higher-risk clients to an additional $3,000 at a cost of between $4 and $6 per $100 of value, payable every six-month period. (That could be as much as $180 every six months to insure a $3,000 in-car entertainment system, for example. But you could expect to do better if your driving record and claims history are clean.)
Consider specialty insurance, and stay out of Canada
If you really throw your heart and soul and wallet into your car, and maybe even spend your weekend showing it off at shows and rallies, consider insurance that specializes in unique vehicles, suggests Anderson. Insurers like American Modern Home Insurance and Great American Life Insurance Co. both have collector auto programs.
One upside is that these companies are accustomed to dealing with unusual vehicles. Another is that premiums can be reasonable for good drivers. At American Modern, for example, a 1993 Toyota Supra with a lot of racing modifications that’s worth $35,000 costs $579 to insure for the year, with a $500 deductible. The downside: usage is restricted to less than 6,000 miles or less annually.
By and large, the insurance industry in the U.S. has let car owners modify their vehicles unhindered, within reason. In Canada, though, some drivers have had their policies canceled when they made relatively minor changes.
Ron Shortt of Whitby, Ontario, installed lowering springs to enhance the look of his 2002 Pontiac Sunfire and found his policy canceled. The 49-year-old information technology specialist with a clean driving record reinstated his policy by putting on the old springs.
Lucky for owners of such sport compacts, that crackdown shows no sign yet of crossing over the border.
For information on what to do if you have warranty issues after modifying your car, click http://www.sema.org/main/semaorghome.as
For information on potential laws in your state that could affect what you can do to your vehicle, click http://enjoythedrive.com/
For a roundup of state laws related to altered-height vehicles, click http://www.semasan.com/images/pdf/3