Let’s be perfectly honest here: Complaining about the DMV is an age-old American tradition. It probably dates back to pre-Revolution days when you had to renew your license to drive a horse.

So I admit this column is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. But really, our DMV license system has gotten just absolutely atrocious here locally, especially since the pandemic hit in 2020.

I hear with some regularity from frustrated locals who had an absolutely dreadful experience trying to get their licenses renewed, particularly in Buncombe County at the Patton Avenue office.

Most recently I emailed and talked with Woodfin retiree Marshall De Bruhl about his renewal saga, which he describes as a “horror show.” Several months ago, De Bruhl said, he got the notice from NCDMV that his driver’s license would expire Nov. 3.

“I made note of it and in September went online to renew,” De Bruhl said. “‘It was not possible,’ came the reply, since I must – no reason given – do it at a local office. So I went to the website to make an appointment. Nothing available until January 2023.”

I’ll note this is a common complaint from dissatisfied customers – no appointments available for months.

De Bruhl thought his best option was to show up as a walk-in customer. He stopped by in the afternoon but said he was told walk-ins can only be accommodated from 7-9 a.m.

The clerk, De Bruhl says, told him few people show up at that hour, so it should be an easy process. He also told De Bruhl, 87, that he had to come in person because he would need an eye exam.

So De Bruhl arrived at the Patton Avenue DMV at 7 a.m. sharp, chipper and full of hope.

By about 11 a.m. on Nov. 15, the line at the Patton Avenue DMV office had dissipated, but one customer said, “Everyone was complaining about the wait.”

“There were already 30 people in the line,” De Bruhl said. “But no one would be allowed inside until 8 a.m., it seemed. The guy at the head of the line had arrived at 6 a.m. There were a few chairs out of the weather, but the rest of us just had to make do.”

You’re reading all of this right. Sitting outdoors, in line, like you’re trying to buy a discounted PlayStation 5 at Best Buy on Black Friday. But instead, this prize is your license renewal.

“After an hour I went inside and demanded to know what was going on,” De Bruhl said. “I pointed out that one of the people outside was in a wheelchair. And his wife was on a walker. A guy came out and in drill sergeant tones told us to just suck it up.”

He did bring the man in a wheelchair inside, along with his wife, De Bruhl noted.

De Bruhl said he did have a nice conversation in line with an attorney who’d moved here from another state, and they watched as a homeless woman set up a pallet on the porch of a nearby abandoned home and took a nap.

But by 9:30 a.m. De Bruhl went inside again and confronted the clerk, who then came outside and asked folks what they were waiting for – license renewal, new license, etc.

At 10 a.m., De Bruhl said, they began allowing groups of four to enter, and they were given call numbers. He was in an early group.

“At 11 a.m., I was called up to begin the process,” De Bruhl said. “I exited the DMV at 11:15 a.m. I had been there for four hours and 15 minutes. Standing outside for three hours of that.”

But he did leave triumphant, with a license! Well, sort of…

“As I was finishing up at the DMV,  the clerk folded a piece of paper into a scrunch and handed it to me, along with what I thought was my new license, which I put in my wallet,” De Bruhl said.

The next morning he unfolded it, only to discover it’s a 60-day temporary license. The real one would be coming along in the mail.

“So I have been driving around with my old license,” DeBruhl said.

A mountain native and retired publishing company executive who lived in New York City for decades, De Bruhl is somewhat sympathetic to the DMV, noting the office had 12 workstations, but only five were manned when he visited.

“One does feel sympathy for the stressed out and clearly overwhelmed employees. But …” he said.

Allow me to finish his sentence, as De Bruhl was too polite: “But … what the hell, DMV?!”

DMV responds: Lots of employee vacancies

Clearly, slow service at DMV is not a new issue, but it’s really gotten horrendous over the past couple of years during the pandemic.

“The main issue we’re having, like many industries across the country, is with staffing,” DMV spokesperson Marty Homan told me via email. “Our vacancy rate out west is over 30%, last I heard.”

On checking further, Homan noted that the rate is actually 36.5 percent in DMV’s District 7, which comprises the western counties and 16 offices. The Asheville office on Patton Avenue has 12 driver’s license examiners on staff and vacancies for seven more, while the “Express license” office on Tunnel Road, which has been closed during much of the pandemic and is closed now, has two vacancies.

For all 16 offices in western North Carolina, the DMV has 47 driver’s license examiners and 27 vacancies.

The DMV has been actively recruiting, Homan added, attending job fairs and seeking out candidates where possible.

“We again were able to increase pay to over $40,000 to start in the last month or so and are also working on additional incentives to help fill the vacancies,” Homan said.

Another complicating factor in the Asheville area is that “there’s just one office in Asheville-Buncombe,” Homan said, noting that the Express Office has been closed since February.

This is NOT the DMV office on Patton Avenue. The Patton Avenue DMV office puts chairs outside for people waiting in line.

Homan said they really encourage folks to do their business with DMV online (MyNCDMV.gov), if at all possible. 

“That’s especially important with an area like Asheville, which is growing like Raleigh and Charlotte, because all those new residents need to come into an office for their first driver license/ID issuance,” Homan said.

As a longtime real estate reporter around here, I can verify that is absolutely true. During the height of the pandemic, several local real estate agents told me as many as 60 percent or 70 percent of their clients were coming here from other states.

Homan said they also encourage folks to not wait until the last minute to schedule an appointment or walk-in.

“We send a renewal reminder six months in advance of the license/ID expiration,” he said. “People can renew at any time within that six-month window. You can schedule an appointment up to 90 days in advance.”

Homan also noted that the calendar fills quickly this time of year with all the state holidays. So don’t wait till the last minute to either schedule an appointment or walk in.

Also, if you renewed your license online the last time, you have to renew in person the next time.

Homan also said the DMV’s appointment scheduler only goes out 90 days, “so the schedule would not have gone out to January at that time, only into December.”

De Bruhl disputes this, however. 

Homan also said the DMV serves walk-ins only from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., not 7-9 a.m., as DeBruhl says he was told. Again, De Bruhl is certain of what he was told.

What do state legislators have to say?

The bigger picture to me with all of this involves the state legislature. The DMV system has been a mess for a long time in the Tar Heel state, and the pandemic just highlighted its shortcomings.

So I asked a couple of local state legislators, Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, and Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, what they think needs to be done.

Do we need more employees, more offices, better pay, all of the above?

“Probably all of the above,” Mayfield said. “The way I intersect with this is I get a lot of emails from people saying, ‘I can’t get an appointment for three months, but I have to have an ID for this like next week.’ ”

“The sad thing is when people reach out to me, and then we reach out to DMV, they get an appointment within a week,” Mayfield said.

Mayfield said she wrote last week to Wayne Goodwin, commissioner of the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles, asking about the issue with appointments, stressing that people should not have to go through her office to get an appointment.

“What that says to me, I think, is that there’s more capacity there than they’re using,” Mayfield said, noting she had not heard back from Goodwin as of Nov. 16. 

It could be, Mayfield said, her intervention is displacing people who already had appointments. Either way, it shouldn’t be that way.

I asked if fixing DMV was on her legislative radar.

“I haven’t thought about it being on my legislative radar,” Mayfield said, noting that she wants to hear back from Goodwin first. “If it is more money, more offices, doing licenses at more places, I don’t know what he thinks the answer is. But clearly, I am probably not the only legislator who’s hearing from people. That is often the thing that spurs action.”

Mayfield noted that “almost every state agency is down 30 percent” on employees, in part because the state lacks flexibility in raising wages quickly.

Turner also noted that Goodwin has been working “to try to correct a lot of the problems.”

“One of the biggest challenges the DMV has is that their software system is wholly outdated,” Turner said. “I think on some of their systems, they are working off of Fortran as an operating system.”

The Fortran programming language was created in the 1950s, by the way.

Turner said he’s asked the DMV at times for data on licenses, “and they have to run those queries overnight, because they can’t simultaneously query the system while it’s operating.”

“That is one of the biggest obstacles I’ve heard from the commissioner — in addition to staffing — is the antiquated operating systems,” Turner said.

Asked if the DMV needs more funding, Turner said, “Absolutely it does.” He said he didn’t know offhand how much is needed, adding that a lot of North Carolina government operations are woefully underfunded.

Turner said he too has heard from plenty of disgruntled licensee hopefuls.

“I’ve heard it from my sister when she took my niece to the DMV to get her license, and she’s like, ‘Can’t you do something about this?’” Turner said.

A 2-hour wait, with an appointment

When I stopped by the Patton Avenue DMV office last Tuesday, I didn’t see any lines out the door, and inside a handful of seats were open. But I came by around 11 a.m.

One guy said he got his Real ID and everything went smoothly, and a woman who drives school buses said she was served quickly, possibly because of her job.

West Asheville resident Steve Lance said he waited two hours to get his license renewed at the Patton Avenue DMV office on Nov. 15 – and he had an appointment.

But I didn’t have to look too far to find a frustrated customer, in this case West Asheville resident Steve Lance, 68. He had an appointment for 9:45 a.m. and finally left with his renewal at 11:45 a.m.

He doesn’t have a computer or smartphone and couldn’t do the renewal online.

Lance is retired after a career in the railroad industry, so he didn’t have anything pressing to do in the morning. But still, it’s frustrating.

“I don’t appreciate it, but you’ve got to have it,” Lance said

He’d like to see the system fixed so you could at least have some assurance that when you have an appointment, you’ll get out of the DMV in a timely manner.

Wouldn’t that be a dream come true?


Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle is an award-winning reporter who has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at jboyle@avlwatchdog.org.

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36 Comments

  1. Is it true you cam drive to another town and get this done? I heard that despite the drive time it was quicker at other offices.

    1. Two of us went to Burnsville with appointments, but still took 2 hours. Only one employee doing it all, including driving tests. We had to renew in person because we renewed online last time.

      1. This story is Spot On! Had an 8 hour wait at the Hendersonville DMV, was third in line, and two of the associates left for the day at 2:00pm. We took some grand advice from our line waiting community and drove to Morgonton! A 5 minute wait, no line, and plenty of associates! This place should be the DMV standard!! It was so good, we googled the plate office location and completed all our transactions. Thank You Morgonton!!

  2. NC prisons job fairs offering $7000 sign on bonus. NC State Highway Patrol offering abbreviated academies for those with Basic Law Enforcement Training. NCDMV cant hire employees. School teacher shortages. It is not the pandemic. It is not the employees. It is the systemic degradation of North Carolina government employment that began with the Republican takeover of the General Assembly in 2010. Long story short.

    1. I’m glad you’ve said this because I would have had you not. It is the Republican led legislature that is slowly squeezing our state government agencies dry. They are following the same playbook that’s been going on in all over the country where republicans have their hands on the purse strings. The US House of Representatives is already promising to be a royal s**t show come January. They can’t wait.

    2. You got that right , Danny McIntosh. Exactly right. “Cutting taxes” just means we get our services cut because the departments get way underfunded.

  3. Just wondering, how many DMV offices were closed after the 2008 elections in North Carolina? I’ve lived in 11 states. This one is the worst for DMV issues. Now Florida has a nice twist you have to pay your car tax in one building and get your license plate in another.

  4. My DL was due to expire in Jan of 2023. In June of 2022 I made an appointment for September. I showed up on time and was out the door in less than 30 minutes. No surprises and excellent customer service. Thank you Patton Ave DMV.

    1. I had an appointment for 11:30 in Oct 2021. I got there 15 min early and got in first line to sign in, 20 people ahead of me. Then a second line with 20 people to get in building. A lady came out at 11:45 and said there were only 3 people working at Patton that day and they would all be taking time off for lunch in the next two hours. It was a very cold day, we were outside and I can’t stand in line for 4 hours. I left and rescheduled for my local Brevard office months later. Much less painful. I called state dot to ask why are they scheduling appointments they can’t keep? Someone was supposed to get back to me and never did. Horrible system and bureaucracy and terrible customer service! Gov. Cooper needs to be aware.

  5. This illustrates what is so fiendishly wrong with requiring people to have photo IDs to vote. Anything that requires a citizen to visit the DMV is barbaric. I never received an advance notice before my last renewal, which came due during the pandemic. Knowing the license would expire, I went on line about six weeks before and learned I would have to make an appointment, but there were none to be had at the Patton Avenue office until long after my license had expired. I kept a copy of that to show any officer who might stop me. But at least I had an appointment. Or so it seemed. The appointment was to register to stand in line for an hour. There were not enough chairs. Only some for the people nearest the door, as in a cakewalk. When I finally did get inside the examiner was extremely courteous and helpful. The problem is not the fault of the people who work there but of the politicians who don’t. Every legislator should be required to spend a day helping out at the DMV. Then, perhaps, it would be staffed sufficiently to treat people like citizens should be treated.sd

  6. I endured the Asheville DMV for decades. My experience in Colorado? Ten minute wait. Out the door in 30 minutes including the test. Oregon? Zero wait time. Walked straight to the desk. No problems. New Hampshire? I made an appointment online. Can you even imagine? In and out in under 30 minutes.
    DMV horror stories are not universal. They are a result of misplaced priorities.

  7. I should have noted that, in New Hampshire, my online appointment was for the following week. Pretty much whenver I wanted. It can be done if serving their constituents, instead of controlling them, is a legislative priority.

  8. This is the DMV in every state, and every government agency I’ve had to deal with since lockdown. The unemployment office is worse. In the lockdown scramble they approved my application when they they shouldn’t have so that I now owe owe them $8000. But t I can’t find anyone to take it! Industry, retail, corporate customer service…everyone is short-handed. Which begs the question, if unemployment is at a record low, where the hell is everyone working?

  9. You could have easily changed “Broward County” to “Buncombe County”. Allstate make a mistake by one letter different on her Prius. Allstate has been a customer for 45 years. Allstate then cancelled my wife for her driver [sic] license. I traveled 200 miles to Volusia County to finally straightened it out.

  10. This is not a license renewal comment but a license plate issue. I bought a new car in Texas and wanted to transfer my personalized tag to the new vehicle. I sold my old car to a person in Texas. Long story short it became a ridiculous tangle. I live in Asheville but because of the issues John Boyle writes about, I went up to the Burnsville DMV office. I walked right to the desk and a very helpful clerk sorted through the mess very efficiently.

  11. From what I understand this is operated by an outside agency. Why were they not fired years ago. This has been going on for the thirteen years I’ve lived here. Like all the other commenters I did not have this experience in another state. I don’t think I’d want to work there for any money in the world. You know by the time people have waited ridiculous amounts of time they are not going to treat you well and be very surly. Oh, the other thing is I paid money, CASH only, to have something notarized there. That is supposed to be done in front of you. It wasn’t. Paid the money and they went to a back room and came back with it notarized. What a scam.
    If it is overhauled they should also find someone else to manage it. The whole thing is ridiculous.

  12. Did you know that in Michigan you can get your tag and your license at the same time & place – the DMV. Instead of a privately contracted Tag Officice (like we have in North Carolina), in Michigan it’s all in one place. Why can’t North Carolina do that? Money of course. We’re too stinking cheap.

    1. NC used to have the license offices run by DMV but you’re right—they’re now contracted out. Because republicans want to privatize everything. It used to be excellent service and conditions with plenty of room inside to sit in actual chairs when license tags were through the DMV. Cutting taxes and privatizing things (license tags, charter schools, etc) usually does not improve services. It often makes them worse.

  13. My husband and I moved here (Asheville) from Arizona last year. We immediately went online (early Nov.) to get a DMV appt but couldn’t get one until Jan. and that one was in Morganton. We did not have to wait long at the Morganton office but we did have to go to another location to get our registration and license tags! The wait there wasn’t bad either so I recommend Morganton if you have to go to an office!
    One thing the state could do to relieve things is remove the requirement that online license renewal can only be every two years. In other words, you have to appear in person every other year!
    This whole process was quite a shock to us because the AZ DOV online system is very good and efficient. NC’s DMV is a dinosaur! Thanks for the article!

  14. Tourism and excessive tourism marketing are the root causes of all of our troubles and few of our elected officials have the courage to stand up and shout this from the mountaintops. Truly shameless and unsustainable and so painful to watch this train wreck continue. If you lack housing and if your lines are too long and your wages too low and your neighborhood being exploited, blame the TDA, not the DMV.

  15. This minor problem is what you chose to waste Watchdog resources on? Is there no actual corruption awaiting exposure? I didn’t donate for this nonsense.

  16. I applied for a title for an antique motorcycle over 5 months ago, and am STILL waiting. Calls to the DMV were wait times of over an hour only to be disconnected from their end. It’s an absolute disgrace.

  17. When we moved back to the mountains in July, I tried to change our addresses on our drivers licenses online but the system said our address does not exist, so we will have to do this in person. Never mind that the Post Office delivers our mail every day to this address without a problem.
    Drivers license office in Spruce Pine only open on Tuesdays and appointments are not available for months…….

  18. I have heard and witnessed these horror stories, BUT, my partner totally lucked out. He never received notice that his license expired on his birthday, Oct. 26. He realized it last Friday, Nov. 18. I tried using the online portal to renew it for him (as it worked for me last year), but it kept kicking me out and he could not get an appointment until February 2023. He drove to the DMV on Patton Avenue, and miraculously there were only 10 people in line. He was in and out with a new license in under an hour! Talk about good luck, a miracle – who knows?!

  19. I’m sympathetic with the DMV travails and am lucky to have renewed my license in Marshall by appointment. I must say, though, that I’ve never forgotten the nastiness of the people working at the Rockland County DMV in New City, NY. Usually I find NYers friendly and helpful, though their in-your-face advice often takes outsiders by surprise. The DMV was always an exception: you could count on long waits and in-your-face-nasty.

  20. More to say:
    1. If the DMV is still using Fortran it’s a ransomware situation just waiting to happen.
    2. Improving the FAQ on the DMV website might help alleviate some of the office traffic. The FAQ are fairly limited and don’t address simple questions like: “If I renew my license early will my license effective date change accordingly?” I had success getting through to the phone help line last year but this year I finally gave up after calling twice and never getting through to anyone.
    4. If hiring personnel is an issue, why not upgrade the online system and streamline the processes so that the DMV offices don’t require as much staff? Pivoting to another solution is what we all have to do these days.

  21. I couldn’t make an appt online in time last year so I came early and had a nearly 3 hour wait to get a Real ID. With nothing to do for 2 hours but stand in line, I watched someone off in the distance, so far off I couldn’t tell what he was doing. I was absolutely mortified when a few days later WLOS aired my face glaring at the camera for a story about the long lines at the DMV.

  22. Okay, there must be a way to monetize this information, but my secret is revealed in the interest of frustrated Asheville residents who deserve better. I lived in neighboring Waynesville for nine years (30 miles west) and now have resided in Asheville for nine years, too. That’s why I know the trick. Depending on where you start in Buncombe County, it is 60 minutes roundtrip (30 minutes each way) to the flyspeck of Clyde, NC. Take the Waynesville/Maggie Valley/Cherokee exit off I-40 (Exit 27) and proceed about three miles to Exit 105, on the outskirts of Waynesville. It’s maybe a quarter-mile up the hill to the DMV office at 290 Lee Road (828-627-6969).
    Get there between 7:15 and 7:30 in the morning to make sure you’re at the head of the line. No appointment necessary, although they do take them. They take walk-ins, even at the start of the day. I got there at 7:30 on Nov. 17, 2021, a Wednesday. One other driver had the same idea — only one! The door opens at 8 a.m. and I was done at 8:25 a.m. I celebrated with a big breakfast at the Pioneer Restaurant.
    My license had expired five months earlier, and I looked into the “appointment game” and got the same message about waiting for months. So I procrastinated until November and finally got off my duff. By the way, the people at the Clyde office were very, very nice. So save your sanity and Go west, young people. Just stay away in May 2026 when I have to renew.
    Yes, we have to improve the system, and everyone’s rage is legitimate. But like many things in life, we have to find a way around the blockage. I once had an employer who was impossible to work for but easy to work around. You too?
    Happy trails!

  23. We moved here from MD 2 1/2 years ago and I guess I was fortunate to get an appointment that was just a few weeks in the future and my visit was very timely. I don’t doubt the others who have posted here, as we had the same problems in MD before the license fee was increased significantly and the pay was improved for those who worked for the MD MVA.

  24. I had to renew my license recently. I thought that post pandemic it is going to be better so month before my license was to expire I went in… emm… I made appointment 3 months out, got pulled over while waiting on my appointment.
    Day of the appointment I arrived 15 early and it took me 4 hours till I walked out with my piece of paper. What made me really angry was watching people sit outside while one person was working and 5 were talking, opening doors, walking, moving chairs around and yes, a lot more talking.

  25. I moved and needed to update my NCDL address – I could not do this online, I had to show up in person at a DMV. Asheville’s DMV appointment schedule was booked out. I made my appointment at Marion DMV. Today, I just got back with my Driver’s license address updated at the Marion DMV – Easy, painless, warm waiting room – I was there at 9 am for a 9:15 appointment, sat in a chair until my name was called and was in my car heading back to Asheville at 9:30 –

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