Last month, Dr. Howard Hoffman took a morning off from work to try to register his son's 1983 Honda Prelude. He got to the District's Department of Motor Vehicles "at what I thought was the crack of dawn, and it seemed like there were 300 people in there," Hoffman said. "I was overwhelmed by this sense of futility when I saw this line of people armed with newspapers and sandwiches. I would have had to spend my whole morning in there."
Hoffman's dismay was Robert Long's cue. Long, who prowls area DMV offices in search of such discontent, offered to handle the transaction that same day for $25. The relieved Hoffman filled out the necessary forms on the spot.
"I was really very tickled by the whole thing," Hoffman said. "It was well worth whatever I paid."
Long is a professional linesman -- a surrogate who plays the waiting game for busy car owners. Like dog walkers and wardrobe consultants, Long and his competitors are cashing in on Washingtonians who would rather part with their money than their time.
"Where do I sign up?" cracked Wanda Jackson, who was in line at the DMV recently. "This really blows your whole afternoon."
Even Siobahn McMahon, who said she could scarcely afford a stand-in on her nurse's salary, was sorely tempted. "It would be worth it to avoid this hassle," she said wistfully.
Long's fledgling business -- conceived while he waited through the annual DMV ritual last year -- is one of several new tag and title services geared specifically toward busy professionals in the metropolitan area.
For example, the United States Vehicle Registration Service, started in January by twins Nicholas and David Montgomery, offers to stop by a customer's office on the way to the DMV and complete the transaction on the way back. In fact, the only thing the brothers will not do is renew a client's driver's license -- which would be illegal.
"These are really people who don't have time to do these things," Nicholas Montgomery said. "Some of them are a bit wary about handing over their cars, but then, the people who use the service tend to have pretty expensive cars."
Not all services are so conscientious. Doug Neilson, a spokesman for the Potomac office of the American Automobile Association, says that about 50 Maryland motorists paid one service to renew their registrations in March but did not receive the new stickers before the old ones had expired. In the District, driving with an expired registration carries a fine of $100.
Neilson offered several suggestions for consumers considering using a tag and title service:
Do not wait until the last minute. Some firms guarantee a 24-hour turnaround, but there may be unforeseen delays at the DMV.
Check with the Better Business Bureau. Tag and title firms must carry licenses and register with the DMV. Ask to see the documents.
Shop around. Rates vary, and some firms offer package deals for car owners having several tasks done. Also, when hiring surrogates to transfer a title to another jurisdiction, make sure they are familiar with car values, which can affect the excise tax rate.
The best way for consumers to protect themselves, Neilson said, is to take care of the registration themselves. "If you send the forms back in to the DMV the day you get it in the mail, you save yourself the $24.78 you'd have to pay someone to stand in line," he said. "What it really comes down to is what your time is worth."