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Driver's Seat: Don't expect big tax break from car donations

Today's feature: Your ratty old car that no longer runs, or perhaps runs sporadically. Price: Trade-in value, Kelley Blue Book or

Today's feature: Your ratty old car that no longer runs, or perhaps runs sporadically.

Price: Trade-in value, Kelley Blue Book or

Marketer's pitch: Take my car, please!

Conventional wisdom: Donating cars to charity seems like a good way to help people and get an old car out of your hair.

Reality: It may be a great way to get an old car out of your hair, but the "helping people" portion takes some research.

A good thing? So you have an old clunker sitting in the garage, in the driveway, in the yard. Advertisements and websites abound that make it sound like donating the car is easy and beneficial for your favorite charity.

Making the donation in December is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the seasons - both the holiday season and the season of last-minute tax write-offs.

Numbers can be difficult to pin down. An IRS media representative told me the agency doesn't keep track of how many vehicles are donated or how much the deductions can lower taxpayers' bills overall.

How the money is used: Long before I became Mr. Driver's Seat, I donated a 10-year-old 1996 Chevrolet Lumina with 175,000 miles. It had no working air-conditioning and ran poorly. I long harbored the illusion that the car was repaired and put someone in need on the road.

But mostly the cars are sold at auction or scrapped, with proceeds going to the charity.

That's how it works at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The organization has a car donation tab on its website, and Rachel Gross, director for planned giving and endowments, said vehicle donations have averaged about two a month since the group started accepting them early in 2012. Proceeds from the donated vehicle sales go to the annual fund or the endowment, funding the federation's programs and include filling some transportation needs.

"I like to tell people, 'Your car drives elderly people to the doctor and food to people in need,' " if only figuratively, Gross said.

Actually, donating a vehicle to the Jewish Federation or one of 2,000 other nonprofits benefits two organizations. The Federation partners with Charitable Adult Ride Services (CARS), part of Jewish Family Services of San Diego, a charity that handles car donations for nonprofits around the country.

Ken Bassik, development and marketing executive at CARS, said his group has between 35 and 40 employees (more during busy seasons) to collect cars and get them to auction. After towing and auction fees, proceeds are split 80-20 between the donor nonprofit and CARS. Other CARS partner charities include Catholic Charities agencies and public radio stations around the country.

And most of the money CARS receives funds charitable programs, not just the cost of running the car donation operation.

Giving the right gift: Catherine Friedman, a longtime Mr. Driver's Seat consultant - meaning a neighbor who's helped offer feedback on test cars - has a day job as executive director of Friends Association for Care and Protection of Children in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and while her organization doesn't accept car donations, she offered a good website for people to see how well individual charities use the money that comes their way. is free but requires registration, and aims to "gather and disseminate information about every single IRS-registered nonprofit organization," according to the website.

Guidestar's senior marketing director Lindsay Nichols said motorists interested in donating cars can look through the website's information on the two million charities registered with the IRS to find the right one for them.

"No two nonprofits judge themselves the same way and there's really no regulation" so doing one's own research is extremely important, Nichols said.

How the donor benefits: The IRS has different rules depending on how big a deduction the taxpayer claims.

Generally, the sale price of the car at auction is its deductible value, and the charity should provide that in a statement to the donor. Bassik said the full value of the auction price is deductible, with no reduction based on towing and auction fees.

The bottom line: Do your homework on where the car is going, and don't expect a big tax write-off. Some may contend the split in fees takes money out of the charity's profit.

But the Jewish Federation's Gross said charities like hers are satisfied with the donation system that allows people the convenience of getting rid of a junker car - or even a not-so-junker car. Or boat or ATV.

"It allows people to take what may be 'junk' that's sitting in their driveway, and with one call they can benefit a nonprofit organization," Gross said.

Driver's Seat: The 1996 Chevrolet Lumina LS

 The model of car I gave to charity is a 19-year-old relic.

Price: $1,039 from a private seller in clean condition, or $1,942 for dealer retail, according to

Reality: Not a bad runner for Mr. Driver's Seat.

Up to speed: The 3.1-liter V-6 created plenty of power to get the light sedan up to cruising speeds without hesitation, but is no match for today's engines.

Shifty: The four-speed automatic came on the steering column or in the console.

Friends and stuff: Our version had room for six, sat low, with narrow seats. Good legroom and headroom.

Where it was built: Oshawa, Ontario.

 How it was built: Our version lasted 175,000 miles, so I considered it a success. Consumer Reports, in a 1997 rating, called the 1996 above average or excellent for all components. But I know its long-term reliability was not rock-solid. Our 3.1-liter V-6 was less trouble-prone than the optional 3.4, which often needed gaskets replaced.

If you're in the market: With so many years under its belt, be sure to find an example that's well cared for, ideally with service records.