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This License Plate Number Is More Valuable Than the Car It's on

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author photo by Doug DeMuro September 2017

Here's something you don't see every day: A car, driving down the street, wearing a license plate number that's more valuable than the entire vehicle. Although this practice is common in other parts of the world, in America it really only happens in one place: Delaware.

Before I explain what I mean, a note on this particular car. I saw this car driving in Maryland a few days ago -- and being a mid-2000s Saturn Aura, it's probably worth around $5,000 (at most). But, as you can see, it's wearing Delaware license plate number 93 -- which could be worth $100,000 on today's market.

Yes, that's right, "today's market." Delaware is one of two states that still issues all-numeric passenger car license plates, meaning that virtually everyone in Delaware has a number on the back of their car -- and so, it stands to reason that the more "important" people have the lowest numbers. And thus, anyone who wishes to be viewed as important wants one of these low numbers very, very badly; the governor gets number 1, the lieutenant governor gets number 2, and the secretary of state gets number 3, so "public" numbers start with 4. The lower the plate number is, the more valuable it is; someone recently paid $325,000 for 14.

This "low-number" desirability is also the case in many other northeastern states, especially Massachusetts, and also in Illinois -- but Delaware is the only state where an active market exists for trading and selling license plate numbers.

Here's how it works: If you have a low number -- typically one that's been passed down in your family for years -- it's likely that some wealthy person, some new-money recent Delaware arrival who's currently forced to drive around with something awful like "237646" on their back bumper, wants to buy it. Currently, websites exist devoted solely to this trade, allowing Delaware residents to buy and sell their plate numbers.

The physical license plate itself isn't very valuable, as, in Delaware, the person who buys the low number owns the number -- and they can put it on whatever Delaware plate they wish. However, there is one practical reason for the low-number desirability: If you have a plate number below 86999, you can use an all-black license plate, as opposed to the standard Delaware gold-and-blue plate -- and the black looks very nice on most vehicles.

Of course, many low-number plate people don't want to sell -- no matter how valuable their plate is. Delaware has not fully replaced its license plates since 1942, and some people are driving around with low-number plates from the '40s that have been handed down from grandparents or great-grandparents, which is likely the case in our Saturn Aura situation above. Even if this person never sells their plate number, which is likely, it always inspires a chuckle when you see someone driving around with a license plate number that's more valuable than their car. Only in Delaware.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
This License Plate Number Is More Valuable Than the Car It's on - Autotrader