How to navigate Houston's sometimes tricky parking system

HOUSTON – There are some 3,500 parking spots on downtown Houston streets, but somehow it seems all of them are taken when you need one. Parking in some popular shopping centers can also be tricky. If you pick the wrong spot, your car could be towed. 

"My suggestion is, always look for the signs," said Maria Irshad of ParkHouston. "Read the signs. Don't park in a tow away zone. Don't take that chance."

Irshad said the city will most likely ticket your car instead of towing it if you are parked illegally on the street. After three parking tickets that are more than 30 days late, you'll get a notice that your vehicle will be booted.

"Our vehicles have license plate recognition," Irshad said. "We're driving around the city every day. If they find that vehicle parked on the public right of way, you will get booted."

The boot won't come off until you have paid all of your past due tickets.

You are more likely to get towed from a private parking lot. You know them: the lots with way too many stores and not enough parking. There are usually signs declaring some spots solely for specific businesses.

Try to be courteous, but you will not get towed if you park in one spot and go to a business other than the one listed if the sign does not expressly state that you will be towed. If the sign reads "all others except patrons of a certain business will be towed," you should watch out. 

The Texas Occupations Code requires private property owners to post clear signs that towing is enforced, it's at the driver's expense and the tow company to call to get your car back.

Tow companies are watching you in real time from cameras posted at many private parking lots. The property owners install the cameras and let the tow companies monitor them. As soon as they see you park in the lot and then leave the shopping center but leave your car there, they dispatch a tow truck.

It is completely legal. Even if you go to a store in the shopping center, as soon as you walk off the property and leave your car there, even if it's just minutes, you can be towed. 

If you think your vehicle was wrongly towed, you have 14 days to file for a tow hearing. You should bring evidence to show why you believe you were not illegally parked. Even if you think you will win, the first thing you should do is get your car out of storage. You will have to pay the towing and storage bill, but if you win your tow hearing, the tow company will have to refund you what you paid for the tow and storage. If you leave your car there while you wait for the hearing, your fees will go up every day and you won't get all that money back.