For most of us, a license plate number is a random, forgettable jumble of letters and digits. It serves no purpose other than identifying our vehicle to cops and D.M.V. employees. But in the state of Delaware, the right license plate number is a valuable asset.
CROCKETT: Would you trade your license plate for a brand-new Porsche?
CROCKETT: Would you trade your license plate for $1,000,000?
CROCKETT: $2 million?
For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Delaware license plates.
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U.S. states began issuing license plates in the early 1900s. They were a way to keep track of a growing fleet of automobiles. And Delaware was among the first to mandate them. The Blue Hen State distributed black porcelain plates in numerical order. Numbers 1, 2, and 3 were reserved for Delaware’s governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state. And many of the next low-digit tags went to politicians and prominent families. Number 4, for instance? It went to the commissioner of the Delaware State Highway Department. The former mayor of Wilmington got No. 40. His sister got No. 30. And his chauffeur got No. 60. Over time, license plates have become a status symbol in Delaware society.
But, what if you didn’t happen to be a member of the Delaware elite at the turn of the last century? Well, luckily for you, this is America — where there are very few status symbols that cannot be bought.
Delaware allows its residents to transfer their license plate numbers to other drivers. And this has created a market for the most desirable tags. These days, when someone wants to buy or sell a license plate, they turn to Aaron Dunphy.
DUNPHY: I run Low Digit Tags — basically a marketplace for Delaware license plates.
Dunphy came to Delaware in the ‘90s and found work at a Mercedes dealership. He began to notice that a lot of the customers were more interested in the license plates than the cars.
DUNPHY: Everybody was asking around, ‘Hey, where can I get a black tag?’ And I thought of the idea, “You know what? Maybe I should start posting some ads in the classified section of the local paper.” So I started spending quite a bit of money almost $300 a week just putting, “Wanted: low-digit tags.” I started getting phone calls left and right.
Dunphy set up a website in 2005. And since then, he has arranged the sale of more than 2,000 low-digit license plates. On LowDigitTags.com, you’ll find more than 50 license plate numbers for sale, ranging from $1,200 bucks for a 5-digit, to $65,000 dollars for the number “979.”
The process is simple: let’s say you have plate number 52 and you want to sell it. Dunphy runs a search for some recent comparable sales and comes up with a list price. Then, he goes through his rolodex to see if any high-flying license plate buyers are interested. Once an offer is made and accepted, the buyer and seller go to the D.M.V to transfer the title. And this is where Delaware has a bureaucratic advantage.
DUNPHY: You can go to the D.M.V. and you can have the tag transferred from one person to the next within minutes — as soon as you get to the person at the desk. With some of the other states it takes almost nine months.
What you’re paying for when you buy a low-digit tag, is not the physical license plate itself — that’s essentially worthless. You can go on eBay and find old, out-of-commission Delaware tags for $10 bucks. The value is in the number, and the right to display it on your vehicle. There are only nine single-digit plates in existence; there’s no zero plate. In a given decade, you might only see one of them come up on the market. And Dunphy says the next one to hit the auction block would go fast — even with an asking price that would fund most Americans’ retirement.
DUNPHY: There would probably be about five phone calls that I’d make, and my guess is it would be sold within the hour.
Sometimes, a plate sells for a higher price because it has sentimental value to a buyer.
DUNPHY: I’ve sold license plates because of birthdays, addresses, divorce dates. I mean, you name it. Any type of numbers that might mean something to a lot of people out there bring a lot more money.
Demand for these tags is no joke. In a 2020 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists pinned the total value of Delaware plates from numbers 10 through 99,999 at $227 million dollars. That’s nearly six times the operating budget of the Delaware D.M.V.
So, who would buy a license plate number for several times the median annual salary? That’s coming up.
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A lot of low-digit plates in Delaware are worth much more than the cars they are attached to. Some of them are worth more than the average home price in Delaware. So, if you are looking to buy, you’ve got to have a healthy bank account.
VASSALLO: Well, my father-in-law started purchasing tags in the late ’60s. Started out with three-digit and a couple of four-digit tags. And it just, over the years, became a passion.
That’s Frank Vassallo III. He’s a retired real estate developer — the second of three generations to run a company called Fusco Management.
VASSALLO: Local strip shopping centers, you know, fast food, supermarkets, CVS, Walgreens, stuff like that. All in Delaware.
Vassallo’s father-in-law, Anthony Fusco, started the business back in 1965. And when he struck it rich, he decided to treat himself to something he’d always pined for: a low-digit Delaware tag. He bought his first plate — number 477 — for $800 bucks. From there, it quickly became an obsession.
VASSALLO: He’s a numbers guy. I mean, with business and, you know, he likes to gamble a little bit. So numbers are a big part of that. He was kind of taken in by the black and white old tags and the history with them and, you know, just started getting them.
Okay, “just started getting them” is a slight understatement. Vassallo’s family now owns what is probably the largest collection of low-digit license plates in the state. In 1994, Fusco acquired No. 9 for $185,000 dollars and put it on his white Mercedes. The family snapped up No. 8 in a private sale. And in 2008, Vassallo’s son spent a record-setting $675,000 on No. 6 at auction.
VASSALLO: I was actually in California on the phone with him as the bidding was going on. My son kept saying, “How high am I going?” I said, “I’ll tell you when to stop. I’ll tell you when to stop.”
Aaron Dunphy says you would have to bid even higher today.
DUNPHY: Single digits — if one became available it would really sell close to $1,000,000 A two-digit over the past two years, they’ve probably sold anywhere from low hundreds to over $400,000 Three-digits. There’s been some that have sold as reasonable as $30,000, up to some that are sold well over $100,000.
According to Frank Vassallo, in total, his family has spent around $2 million on over a dozen plates over the years.
When you have that kind of money tied up in license plates, you have to be extremely vigilant about renewing your registrations. If you miss one, the D.M.V. has the right to release it to the public after 12 months. And there are license plate vultures waiting to pounce at the opportunity.
VASSALLO: Either they have friends at the D.M.V. or they’re there and they see the tag has expired and jump right on it.
His family makes sure to put them to use.
VASSALLO: We have all the tags in a separate corporation and most of the family members have them on their cars. You know, that becomes the issue. If you have 15 tags, you need 15 cars. So, you know, my nieces, nephews, my father-in-law…
CROCKETT: And what kind of car do you have it on now?
VASSALLO: I have No. 9 on a Bentley.
CROCKETT: Nice! That’s a car that’s worthy of the special tag.
VASSALLO: Yeah, exactly.
In Delaware, having a low-digit tag on your car makes you a celebrity.
VASSALLO: A lot of people ask if they can take a picture of the car and the tag. I just got one pulling up here — there’s road construction and all the guys stopped what they were doing and all wanted to look at the car and the tag. So, it’s interesting.
This is part of the allure for the buyers of low-digit tags. The plates are a way of saying, not so subtly, “Yeah, I’m rich.”
VASSALLO: You know, it always had a status symbol. If you had a low license plate, you were either a politician or a bigwig in town. I mean, it’s a Delawarian type of thing.
The market for low-digit plates may be mostly a Delaware thing, but it’s popped up in other places, too. In Dubai, someone shelled out $14.3 million dollars for plate No. 1 in 2008. A few years later, No. 5 fetched $9 million. And in China, a bidding war for the plate “999” got so intense that it turned into a bloody brawl.
Expensive license-plate numbers are a perfect example of what economists call a Veblen good — that’s a luxury item where the high price is part of the appeal. Functionally, they’re no different from any other license plate — it’s their scarcity that gives them value.
But Dunphy says that a low-digit plate is also an investment, like fine art, or a piece of real estate.
DUNPHY: Everybody always, ‘Why would you spend that much money for a tag?’ Well, if you go buy a car, you’re losing 20 percent, 30 percent right away. Whereas if you have a tag, most likely it’s going to be appreciating over time. On average, over a long term, you’re at about a 9 percent annual return.
That 9 percent return figure is based on very limited data. After all, tight supply is what makes these things so highly valued in the first place. But that doesn’t mean it’s far off. Plate No. 20, for instance, went for $5,000 dollars in 1958; 60 years later it sold for $410,000 — meaning its value grew 7.6 percent per year. To be fair, you’d have done a little bit better in stocks. But for license-plate collectors, all of this is beside the point.
DUNPHY: Most people don’t get rid of them unless there’s no more family in the state and they don’t really have anybody to give it to. So they’re selling it because they’re moving.
CROCKETT: Do you ever see plates end up in divorce settlements?
DUNPHY: Yeah, I’ve been in the courtroom a few times it happens quite a bit.
Dunphy also says low-number license plates are one of the most hotly-contested items in trusts and wills.
DUNPHY: The license plate is probably one of the first things that they usually handle. A lot of times, the siblings want the license plate so it ends up having to almost go into an auction set up. They want to see what the market brings for the tag.
This is something Vassallo has had to consider. Between playing rounds of golf in California and fishing for mahi mahi in the Bahamas, he has drawn up a careful plan for the afterlife of his license plate collection.
VASSALLO: Hopefully it’ll just stay in the family and go to my kids and grandkids. You know, for generations.
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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley, with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston. We are part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. If you’d like to learn more about peculiar goings-on in Delaware, check out the recent episode on Freakonomics Radio called “Why Does One Tiny State Set the Rules for Everyone?” See you next week.
CROCKETT: You ever like, pull up to someone at a stoplight and say, ‘Hey, man, you want to sell your license plate?’
DUNFY: I mean — like, if I see it on a car that’s just in the parking lot or something, I might leave a card.
- “The Value of Social Status,” by Alexander W. Butler, Bruce I. Carlin, Alan D. Crane, Boyang Liu, and James P. Weston (NBER Working Paper, 2020).
- “Welcome To Delaware, Home Of The $410,000 License Plate,” by Weekend Edition Saturday (2018).
- “This Is Why Cars Have License Plates,” by Merrill Fabry (TIME, 2016).
- “Positional Competition: From Low-Number License Plates to McMansions,” by Boyang Liu (University of Delaware Master’s Thesis, 2014).
- “The $675,000 License Plate,” (C.B.S. Evening News, 2008).
- Low Digit Tags.
- “Why Does One Tiny State Set the Rules for Everyone?” by Freakonomics Radio (2023).