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RELATED STORY:For some, imported cars are worth their weight in gold

In Germany, troops can find themselves behind the wheel of a used Mercedes-Benz for less than $5,000. In Japan, $5,000 can put them in the bucket seats of one of Japan’s prized sports cars.

But officials and car enthusiasts warn that anyone hoping to bring that dream car back to the United States better have deep pockets.

Any foreign-produced car less than 25 years old must be modified to U.S. standards — and that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency are all involved, and modifications can be extensive. They can range from new headlights to bumper reinforcements, seatbelt warning systems to instrument panels.

Staff Sgt. Larrance Ritter of the Traffic Management Office at Misawa Air Base, Japan, said TMO officials at any base can provide basic information on how the system works — including links to Web sites with detailed instructions — but that the troops must "do the homework."

Not every car can be imported, Ritter warned. Troops should start by visiting the NHTSA’s Web site for a list of those eligible for import. The next step is contracting with an authorized "registered importer" in the United States who will do all the work to the car before it can be released.

Ritter also said the car won’t make it into the military shipping system until the servicemember can show a receipt proving he’s paid at least half the total bill with the importer.

Registered importer Lois Joyeusaz of J.K. Technologies LLC in Baltimore said her company works with a lot of Europe-based troops, but advises troops coming from Japan not to even bother trying because of the cost. A high-performance Japanese Nissan Skyline, for example, runs about $35,000 to convert to U.S. standards, including the necessary structural modifications.

Importer Phil Trupiano, a co-owner of Birmingham Motors in Royal Oak, Mich., said he often gets e-mails and calls from servicemembers who want to bring a car into the States. But bringing a vehicle into conformity takes an average of three to four months, he said.

Kristil Pinlac, based in Germany, had planned to bring her 1989 BMW 318 to the States when her husband gets out of the Army. But she changed her mind when they found out they would have to spend about $3,000 on modifications.

“When I first bought it, I didn’t like it that much,” she said, “but it is a very nice car.”

She said the car has been reliable, but the conversion costs and costs of shipping it to the States kept her from having the work done.

Air Force Master Sgt. Timothy Smith at Yokota Air Base, Japan, said he was shocked when an importer said it would cost more than $30,000 to bring his $1,200 1997 Nissan Skyline to standard.

“I said, ‘Are you serious?’  ” Smith recalled. “It was like a wake-up call.”

Smith is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the personal property section at Yokota, and his office helps about 3,500 people move their stuff each year.

After conducting his own research, he better understands why so few people elect to ship cars. From June 2008 to May 2009, he said, only 23 people shipped a car from Yokota to the United States.

His advice to anyone considering shipping a car home is simple: “preparation and planning.”

Joyeusaz, the registered importer from Baltimore, was more direct.

“Ninety percent of the people who [import cars] are servicemembers,” Joyeusaz said, “and they are being creamed by DOT and EPA.”

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