I WILL NEVER AGAIN RENT A CAR FROM AVIS OR BUDGET – Part II

Part 2

On our first full day in Southern Italy, with no practical vehicle at our disposal, Cheryl and I took a train from Sorrento to Pompeii.

The ruins at Pompeii

Pompeii. Photo by Alago,public domain, commons.wikipedia.org

The following day we had no choice but to take a bus down the treacherous Amalfi Coast with a return stop in Positano. We passed a dozen places where, if we had a car, we would have loved to stop to soak in the views and take photographs. It was not to be.

The narrow, winding road to Amalfi

The treacherous Amalfi Coast Road

Upon our return home to San Jose I asked our travel agent, Barbie, to see about getting our money back for the car we had reserved, or at least the approximately   140 dollars extra we paid for the automatic transmission. She contacted Auto Europe, the company that booked the car with Avis. Auto Europe was unsuccessful in getting our money back. I contacted Avis Budget Group. myself. They sent me two 25-dollar coupons toward a future rental and a denial of responsibility for blowing our reservation .

I contacted American Express, which took a long time to reply, telling me that I should not have accepted the car Avis had offered me, as if we would have otherwise taken three trains and a bus to get to our hotel. I could have given up at that point, but there was a principle involved here. After all, I am the Consumer Guy.

Trying to call Avis Budget Group at its headquarters in New Jersey got me nowhere. Its answering system is totally digital and I had no way of knowing whom I needed to speak with. I looked up its legal department online and found the head honcho is Michael Tucker. I called back again and entered Mr. Tucker’s name but apparently the system did not “know” that he exists, despite his being Avis Budget’s chief legal counsel.

Can you say, “lawsuit”?

So off I went to my local small claims court, paid the filing fee, and had a subpoena served on Avis Budget Group via its agent for service in Sacramento. I should explain this. If a company does not have an administrative office in the state where you are suing it, it must have an agent for service which can accept legal documents such as California’s “Plaintiff’s Claim and ORDER (sic) to Go to Small Claims Court.”

On the trial date Avis Budget’s representative showed in court. His name is bill. He is the airport manager for Burbank Airport, over an hour away from the courthouse. Bill had never heard anything about the case until the day before. He had virtually no defense. The judge awarded me the $297 plus $45 court fee. Avis Budget was notified that it had 30 days to pay up. By this time it was rush hour in L.A. It would take Bill at least an hour and a half to get back to Burbank. Think of it; five hours of the airport manager’s time to defend a case about which he knew nothing and that was indefensible.

But justice was done. I’m kidding. Avis Budget didn’t pay. So back to court I went. The next judge issued an “Order to Produce Statement of Assets and to Appear for Examination.” A new trial date was set at which Avis Budget was to present a list of its California assets. Don’t ask; in theory it would have to show where everything it owns in the state is located and what it’s worth.

Three months had now passed since I filed in December of 2014 and once again Avis Budget dropped the ball (or kicked it into the stands). Back to court I went and once again the defendant was delinquent. The new judge (in small claims court the “judges” are usually lawyers who sit in for real judges but who supposedly know the ropes) said he would issue a bench warrant that would require a representative of the company to show up. This would involve the assistance of a sheriff’s deputy. The judge set a new court date.

Love the New Car? Wait! Don’t Drive it off the Lot Yet

When I was a kid in the Bronx, yo-yo “season” would come around each spring and every kid in the neighborhood would be walking around with his Duncan or Cheerio. Nowadays, yo-yo season can be an all-year thing … for unscrupulous car dealers. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, if you are dealing with an unscrupulous car dealership, when you make the down payment on your new car (it could be in the form of a trade-in), the finance guy has you sign a great financing agreement and leads you to believe the deal is final.Be careful before you sign for that loan

So you drive off the lot whistling a happy tune (the epitome of which would be “Whistle a Happy Tune”). Hours or days later, you receive a call from the dealer in which you are informed that the deal fell through. The caller asks you to come in and the salesperson tries to convince you to take a higher-interest loan, by about 5 percent. If you say, “No deal,” the dealer tells you that you have driven the car and informs you of the costs, which may include keeping your down payment (or trade-in) or charging you for wear and tear.

Solution: Never drive a new car off the lot without having a fully authorized financing agreement in your clutches.

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The Consumer Gal and I are about to have our book, Enough of Us – which deals with other subject matter – published. In preparation for the big event we need to concentrate on that project. So for the next eight weeks or so, I will be suspending my semi-monthly Consumer Guy full-length blog posts and, instead, providing  a short consumer tip each week (I hope).

If you would like to learn more about our book that deals with issues of ethics and procreation, please visit our other website, www.enoughof.us. Many thanks for your interest.

Look out for Sneaky Contract Terms

I recently came across a magazine article that goosed me into writing about something that has rankled me for a long time. I guess I had to come across this issue elsewhere before I heard my internal wake-up call to write about this issue.

I’m talking about the one-sided contracts with unconscionable clause that most of us sign because we are – or perceive ourselves to be – powerless. The worst of the worst are arbitration clauses. If you want to open a bank account, use an Internet service, or sign onto Netflix, you’ll probably have to agree to a clause that says if you have a dispute with the company, you agree to take it to arbitration, often an arbitration company selected by the vendor. The problem is that arbitrators are notorious for siding with the parties that give them the most business. And that ain’t likely to be you. Adding insult to injury, you may have to share in paying the arbitrators’ fees.

A typical contract arbitration clause

Arbitration clause. photo- CreditInfocenter.com

Recently, each time I logged onto Netflix I saw a banner at the top of the page telling me to read and agree to a change in the Netflix contract. I read the change. It was a requirement that all disputes be settled by arbitration. So I ignored it. The notice was there each time I logged on. After a while I was warned that time is running out. So I let time run out. I never agreed and the banners went away. I guess Netflix would rather have the business of those who wouldn’t agree than lose them as customers. After all, they know we can visit our local Redbox.Here are some tricks you can try to avoid arbitration requirements. If you must agree to an online contract, go ahead. Then email the company’s customer service department and tell them you rescind your agreement to subject disputes to arbitration and that you reserve your right to take disputes to court. Send the email from your own email account; not the company’s “Contact Us” link, and keep a copy of your message. If you don’t hear back, you may be in good shape. If they send you an “either, or” response, you’ll have to make a choice.If you are signing a paper contract, cross out and initial the arbitration clause. If they don’t notice the change, you may be in like Flynn.If you receive a contract by email that you are to print, sign and mail back, yahoo! (Not the Internet service provider – just old fashioned “yahoo.”) Delete the arbitration clause, print the contract, and sign it, and mail it in, keeping a copy for yourself. If the company doesn’t notice the change, too bad for them.  It should have read it before it signed. Just make sure you get a returned copy signed by the appropriate company official. If they can try to slip one by you … turnabout is fair play.

Has your bank, brokerage, credit card company, cable TV provider or any other business ever slipped a little sheet into your statement or bill that notifies you of changes in the terms of your agreement? Read it! If you don’t like what you read, call the company and tell it how you feel. If necessary, take your business elsewhere. If the change of terms is significant, it could give you a way out of your contract with your cellular service company, Internet provider, or the like.

I’ll finish with this. When you get a bill for any utility service that is not a government sanctioned monopoly, like for instance, your electricity provider, check the fees on the statement. There may be a lot of small dings on the bill for just pennies or dimes. Call the utility and ask them to explain each fee and whether it is required by the government as a tax or fee. Many may not be. If so, it’s time to negotiate including the polite threat to take our business elsewhere. Think about it this way: If they say your service (exclusive of taxes and government fees) costs 50 bucks, but they are charging you $54, that’s a four-dollar, or 8 percent – rip-off. While the service provider may not reduce those fees, you threat to leave may prompt them to offer you an extra goodie at no charge. Recently, when I threatened to leave my cable company, the phone rep called me back and offered a “tier” upgrade and a 10 dollar monthly price reduction for six months.

Remember my motto: “Whoever holds the money, has the power.”

 

 

Why do You Think They’re Called “Contractors”? It’s Because of that Contract.

The thought of finding a reputable contractor can strike fear even into the heart of a Green Beret. In the last edition of Inside South Valley, I discussed the ways to choose a contractor for your remodeling job. But even tougher can be negotiating the contract. Why bother nitpicking the details of a contract? You went through the trouble of finding a reputable professional, so why not trust him to do the job right? Right?

Wrong. Have you ever heard the expression, “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip”? That means what the parties agree upon and what they remember agreeing upon can be quite different. And if there’s a dispute, you’ll need a written document. My friends Rance and Mara hired a contractor to do a second story addition on their house. The document was about two pages long, probably one-tenth of what it should have been. Their descent into contracting hell was rapid and deep.

So what goes into a contract? Everything! And I do mean everything, down to the color and brand of the paint and the appliance model numbers. Never be afraid to negotiate the fine points of the contract. Don’t let a preprinted form intimidate you. Other than for legal requirements, everything in a contract is negotiable.

Make an extensive list of everything you’ll want in the contract. While you and the contractor write the document, include any changes. It’s easier to do at this stage so you won’t have to create change orders later on. Provide for negotiating such change orders as the work progresses.

For substantial renovations, have the contractor include sketches or building plans. Mara and Rance didn’t. If the contractor doesn’t have a design department, consider hiring an architect. If you take that option, interview several architect candidates, as you would when hiring a contractor. Be sure all your needs appear in the remodeler’s contract, as some incidentals may not appear in the architect’s plan.

You can negotiate for upgrades or a price reduction before you sign. But don’t get pushy. And get a warranty – at least one year, preferably backed by a reputable warranty company – on all work and materials.

Include a completion date with daily monetary penalties for late completion.

Anytime you pay for materials or services provided by a subcontractor – plumbers or electricians for example – have the contractor give you a lien release signed by the supplier or “sub”. If you don’t, your house could be subject to mechanics liens if the contractor doesn’t pay these providers.

Include wording that describes how clean the job site will be left at the end of each day and how waste will be disposed of.

Set up the payment schedule based on phases of completion, not upon dates. In other words, when specific parts of the job are completed – say the staircase is finished – the contractor will be paid for that stage of the job (once government inspectors sign off on the work). And be sure there’s a holdback included on the final payment of at least ten percent. Final payment should take place 30 days after completion in order to ensure that all work is done properly and everyone’s been paid.

Include a provision for settling disputes, whether through arbitration or court proceedings. Arbitration means you will not be allowed to sue the contractor.

Purchasing appliances and fixtures on your own might save money or offer more options.

Include a clause entitling you to inspect and supervise the job as work progresses.

Try not to pay any sums in advance. California limits deposits to ten percent of the contract or $1,000, whichever is less. If you have to pay for materials in advance of the job start, you may want to make the checks out to the materials suppliers. Include that in the document.

Rance and Mara did very few of these things. They paid for incomplete work and eventually asked me to rescue them from an overpriced and drastically incomplete job. It cost them a lot of extra money and emotional stress – to say nothing of the additional six months – to get the job finished.

If you’re lazy about putting in your share of the work at the start, you may end up putting in a lot more effort trying to make everything right later on. Good luck.


Ellis Levinson has made a career of helping consumers with their complaints against businesses that don't meet customers' expectations. Your business might be employing money-saving strategies in the short run while alienating customers day after day.