Friday, May 25, 2007

Car Buying Experience

I mentioned in a previous post that I was thinking of buying a 2007 Honda Accord. And I am happy to report that I purchased the car for (a) hundreds of dollars less than what listed as the dealer invoice price and (b) a few dollars less than a comparably equipped 2006 Accord at CarMax. I had my heart set on buying a used, crossover SUV. But my financial planner suggested the Accord (reliability and resale value and factory to dealer incentives).

Thanks to, I was able to negotiate everything with the dealership via email. So, the whole car buying experience turned out to be a pleasant one. But it definitely started off on a sour note.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Honda dealership on the north side of Chicago to test the Accord and the CRV. When my friend and I got there, we were accosted by an older woman in her 50s or 60s (unusual for a car dealership), who immediately went into hard core sales mode. But as we talked, and she realized that we were serious buyers, she toned town her sales pitch a bit. I told her that I wasn't ready to buy the car that evening, but I did want to test drive the Accord and the CRV. She wound up telling us a bit about her life story. I sensed that she was an honest person who was trying to make a living under some difficult circumstances. If she managed to sell a car to me, she would earn $175 in commission. So, although they didn't have the car that I wanted in stock, I decided in my own mind that I would come back and order the car from her.

But then we got back to the showroom. Funny how our feelings can change in the span of a heartbeat. Our salesperson went to log my contact information into the computer, but she was accosted by her manager, who proceeded to berate her in a very loud and hostile tone of voice. "Are you going to close the deal tonight?". No, she needs to sell her car first. "Well, what is she driving? Did you talk to her about trading it in?" No, she's already promised to sell it to a friend. He gave her a dirty look and then announced, "Well, I'm going to ask her myself!" Mind you, from where we were sitting, my friend and I could see and hear the entire exchange. So when he turned and walked over to where we were sitting, I was both irritated and apalled by his bad behavior. He introduced himself and then asked if I'd be willing to buy a car that evening if he offered me a great deal. I explained that I was going to wait a few days because I was selling my car to a friend, and she was in the process of applying for a loan. "Did you think about trading your car in? I could give you a great price." No, you couln't. I've already looked up the trade-in value, and my friend is willing to pay the private party value. "Did you think about the tax savings you'd get by trading in your car?" Yes, I've already calculated that. In my head, I was thinking, "Does he really think that I'm that stupid?" I'd save at most a couple hundred dollars in tax and lose thousands of dollars on the actual sale of the car. He tried one more time to get me to negotiate an actual price with him, and then finally gave up and walked back towards our salesperson where he proceeded to berate her yet again because she was having trouble logging my contact information into the computer system.

At that point, my friend and I were absolutely furious. I can deal with people who are condescending or disrespectful. But it turns my stomach when I see people being verbally abusive towards children or the elderly.

The salesperson came over and explained that when I was ready to buy, she would be my advocate and get me a great deal. And she assured me that I would wind up paying about the same price at any other dealership. I made a vague promise to come in the following week to close the deal and then my friend and I left in silence. When we got back to my car, I said "Was it just me or was that manager just a complete ass?" And that's when my friend let it rip. She said that she was on the verge of telling that manager off, but she didn't want to embarrass me.

Sigh. I really wanted to buy the car from the salesperson. But I just couldn't stomach the idea of adding to that manager's bottom line. So, I called her the next day to cancel my appointment. She of course had the day off, and I had to leave a message with the receptionist. And then we played phone tag for the rest of the week. When we finally did connect, it was the day after I had purchased the car from another dealership in the suburbs. She said that she needed to explain to her management why I chose not to buy the car from her. And so I told her that I didn't appreciate the way her manager talked to her. The sad thing is that she didn't remember the incident. "Was the manager tall and blond or shorter with dark hair?" Which leads me to believe that verbal abuse is a fairly common occurrence for her. Even worse, she tried to defend her manager. "Well, you did come in kind of late in the day." Umm, right. That still doesn't give anyone the right to be disrespectful towards their employees. In the end, she asked if she could relay my story to upper management, and I told her that she should definitely feel free to do so.

So, have you ever walked away from a deal because of poor customer service or because you just really didn't like the buyer/seller?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Free DVD Rental at Redbox Kiosks in Jewel-Osco stores

For those of you in the Chicagoland area....

Get a free one-night movie rental at the Redbox kiosk at your local Jewel-Osco store. Enter promo code "JEWEL". Free rental code is valid once per customer until 5/31/07, and only unitl 7PM the next night.

Redbox is an interesting concept. Like Coinstar or even ATMs, it's got the convenience factor going for it. But my guess is that the selection is somewhat limited, and therefore not enough to make me want to cancel my Netflix subscription. But if I were with a group of friends on a Friday night, I could see myself making a quick stop at the Redbox kiosk.

Making a Clean Sweep

I've had somewhat of a love-hate relationship with my car. On the one hand, I love the way it drives. After all, it is the ultimate driving machine ;-). On the other, people have made certain snap judgments or assumptions about me, purely based on the car that I drive. I get a similar reaction from people when I tell them what I do for a living. But I'll save that rant for another day.

The sad thing is that I angsted over the car purchase decision for months. European luxury sedan or just something to get me from point A to B? But grew up in a 'car' family, and I happen to enjoy driving. So when I saw this particular car advertised at CarMax, it was just too good of a deal to pass up. Although this car has a reputation for expensive and frequent repairs, I've been lucky in that sense. It's not particularly fuel efficient, and it requires premium gas, but I don't really drive it very often. I walk or take public transportation to and from work.

But since I'm going back to school in the fall, and 'renouncing' my former way of life, I figured I'd make a clean sweep of it and sell my car. When I mentioned it to my mechanic, he immediately offered to call up some of his friends and customers for me. He obviously knows the car and knows that it's been maintained properly, since he's the one who's done all of the work for me. And he knows that I'm an honest person and willing to sell the car at a fair price. So, true to his word, he found a buyer for me. If all goes according to plan, I'll be handing over the keys to her on Monday.

As for my new car purchase, my financial planner suggested that I buy a new Honda Accord. Reliable and safe and reasonably good gas mileage. No, it's not exactly a fun car to drive, but I've had my last hurrah. I just need something that will get me to and from school. So why a new Accord instead of a used one? Accord is being redesigned for 2008, and all of the dealerships are offering huge incentives. And Accords tend to retain their value and depreciate slowly. So the difference or margin between a 2005 and 2007 Accord is negligible right now.

But just to make sure that I covered all of my bases, I test drove several new and used cars, including the RAV4, CRV and Forester. I have more to say on the subject of slimey auto dealerships. But I'll save that for another day.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Beware of Check Related Scams

There are two great articles in the Chicago Tribune about check related scams. The first article provides some background and history on check washing and certified check overpayment scams.

The second article talks about the writer's personal experience as a victim of check washing. The main point of both of these articles is that thieves are getting back to the basics. Even the most savvy and intelligent individuals may find themselves the victims of check related schemes.

One of my friends almost fell for the bonus check/overpayment scheme a few months ago when he tried to sell his car on Craigslist. The buyer wanted to purchase the car sight unseen (major red flag) and offered to send him a certified check for $5,000. He asked my friend to deduct the cost of the car plus shipping and then wire the rest of the money back to him. Thankfully, my friend sent an email to me and to another attorney friend, asking if we thought it the buyer's request was legit. The sad thing was that the other attorney said he couldn't see anything wrong with the request. My friend was pretty upset when I told him that it's a pretty well-known scam. In the end, he managed to sell his car to a local buyer for list price. But you can be sure that my friend asked for payment in cold, hard cash.

Here are some lessons learned...

1. If you still write checks, buy a solvent resistant pen such as the Uni-ball 207. It's a $1.99 at Walgreens.
2. If you need to send a check, take it to the post office or drop it in a secure, USPS mailbox. Never send it from your home. That little red flag on your mailbox has the unintended effect of alerting thieves as well as your mail carrier.
3. If asks you to cash a check (even if it's a certified check) and then wire money back, DO NOT do it. You could be on the hook for criminal and civil penalties for passing a fraudulent check.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Shame Factor

I know that rich people become richer by practising simple economies. But I gotta confess that the shame factor prevents me from using coupons as often as I should. Today, I went to Target to buy a gift card for a friend. And since I had some time to kill, I decided to use some of my free trial coupons. A 16 oz. bottle of creamer, a package of Airborne, and a bar of Cacao Reserve dark chocolate. When I went through the checkout line, the clerk scanned all of my items. But when she tried to scan the coupons, the computer kept prompting her to manually key in the price of each item. Well, that meant that she had to back up to a prior menu and then scan in the coupon and then the price. Repeat that process 3 times, and you have one very frustrated clerk and a mortified customer who avoided the eye of everyone in line behind her. Let's just say that it'll be a while before I try that again. Maybe the trick is to limit myself to one coupon per visit?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Before You Put Your House on the Market

Before I put my condo on the market, I read this article, How To Prepare Your House For Sale, plus dozens of others. Some of the tips are a bit over the top. I didn't alphabetize my spice jars ;-) But I did remove half the books from my bookshelves and stuffed them in my storage locker. I put away all personal items, cleared everything off of my refrigerator door and stuffed all of my smaller appliances under the sink/counter. When my realtor dropped by for an initial walk through, she told me that our goal was to make the place look like as if no one lives there (i.e., a model home). So she pointed at various things that I needed to hide/put away (for example, she told me to remove all loose papers, magazines and books from the living room area and my desk). And this was after I had already made an initial pass at 'decluttering' my place. She also suggested that I straighten all of the bottles of detergent and cleaners in my laundry room. And she stressed that everything needed to come off the floor, under the theory that if you have stuff on the floor, buyers will assume that you don't have enough storage space. Big sigh. As I've mentioned in the past, I'm somewhat vertically challenged. But I dutifully moved all of my clothes and shoes and miscellaneous food items onto the top shelves of my closets and pantry. My two step ladder saw more use in the past month and a half than in the last 3 years combined.

As for repairs, I had to patch and repaint a small 6"x6" area on each side of the shower stall. And I had to recaulk the bottom of the shower stall and around the kitchen sink. I also adjusted the master bathroom door and a closet door in the second bedroom that didn't close properly. And I used a magic eraser to remove some minor scuff marks on the walls in the hallway.

As for staging the place, I didn't do very much in the way of rearranging furniture. But I did buy a new comforter set for the master bedroom and added some fluffy pillows to hide the fact that I don't have a headboard. I also put a single pillar candle on the coffee table and the dining room table, artfully arranged a new set of towels in the guest bathroom, and set out fresh cut flowers on the kitchen island. And as the article suggests, I put some organic, scented soap in the master bath. The funny thing is that when my realtor showed the place to another agent in the building, she asked if my place had been professionally staged.

In terms of daily maintenance and cleaning, I had a pretty extensive and exhausting routine. I would make my bed, arranging the pillows and sheets and comforter as you would in a hotel room. After taking a shower and getting ready for work, I would start with the kitchen by clearing all of the dishes and put them in the dishwasher, wipe down the counters and faucets, and store everything under the sink. Then, I would move to the bathroom, wiping down all of the faucets, mirrors and counters. I would rearrange the towels, vacuum the bathroom floor and around the kitchen garbage can. Every other day, I would toss out the garbage and vacuum the kitchen, living and dining area. Every Sunday, I bought a fresh bouquet of flowers (usually from Costco). And every other week, a professional cleaning crew would come in and do a more thorough cleaning of the floors, stove, bathrooms, etc.

Let's just say that I'm relieved that my place sold quickly.