You may be out of Warranty, but not out of Luck

The product you bought is broken. The limited warranty has expired. And you are as exasperated as hell because you think the piece of crap should have lasted longer. Well, fret not. Try these approaches.

********DISCLAIMER – Although I mention several brand names in this column, this is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation. This is based on my personal experience with these companies and is no guarantee of future success or failure********

Almost three years ago I bought an Armitron digital sport watch at the Mervyn’s going-out-of-business clearance sale. The watch looked great and cost only 18 bucks. It came with a limited warranty that covered the watch’s internal movement. Last June, immediately after being felt up by a TSA officer at San Francisco Airport, I boarded a plane to New York and proceeded to strap my watch back onto my wrist. The strap
came off in my hand. I discovered that it wasn’t the strap that broke, it was the watch case. The plastic case had broken apart.

Considering that I only wore this watch when traveling or participating in sports, I was particularly irked. I reckoned that I had worn this watch perhaps 200 days in less than three years. When I returned home to San Jose I called Armitron in New York. The agent told me that only the movement is covered by the warranty. I conceded the accuracy of the statement and got off the phone. But the more I thought about it, the more the inequity of this situation ate at me. Why on Earth should a watch case ever fall apart?

A few days later I called Armitron again and asked for a supervisor. I left a message on his voicemail and lo and behold he called me back. I explained what happened and made my case about the case. He felt it was reasonable to expect a watch case to last more than three years. He asked me to send him my watch so he could inspect it. A week later a new watch arrived in the mail.

I called the guy and left a message on his voicemail. I told him that I appreciated the great customer service and that he had won me over as an Armitron customer. After all, one good turn deserves another.

Before I make my point I’ll tell you a related story. I regularly attend an upper-body class at my local health club. I usually leave the class a little early as the cool-down and stretching part of class begins (I do my own stretch routine after doing a few more independent exercises). I noticed that as time went by, my Reebok sneakers were not helping me sneak out of class. They started squeaking – louder and louder each week. The squeak was coming from inside the shoes’ soles.

I called Reebok, explained my problem and the customer service agent asked me to send them the shoes. About a week and a half later I received a new pair of Reeboks. They lived out their lives without a peep.

Here’s my point. If a product fails way before it reaches its reasonable life expectancy, speak up. A good manufacturer will do the right thing. And what is there to lose? After all, the worst thing a company can say is, “Sorry.” (Okay, they could also tell you to go pleasure yourself – but how painful would that be?).

If you are the type of person who is easily daunted, I can only say don’t fear the daunt. Most customer service reps are polite, even if they turn you down. And the sooner you take action, the sooner you will get the intended request off your mind and – I guarantee – you will feel great about standing up for yourself. Go get ‘em tiger.

How can all of Those Insurance Companies be Cheaper Than Each Other – and a few More Tidbits?

 How can every company have the lowest auto insurance rates?

Progressive Insurance spokesperson, “Flo,” (Where the heck does she work anyway? It looks like a Jean Paul Sartre version of hell.) says

Oh no! It's Flo!

Progressive will save you hundreds compared to other insurers. So do the GEICO Gecko, Allstate’s Dennis Haysbert and 21st Century.

Well, according to J.D. Howard of the Insurance Consumer Advocate Network – quoted in the newsletter Bottom Line Personal – it’s all about tweaking what it is they’re talking about. If Allstate gives divorced women in their 30s with full time jobs the lowest rates in Kansas, they may claim they “can” save you 300 bucks compared to other insurers.

Others may save you money by cutting out certain coverage or raising the deductibles or lowering the maximum benefits.

I find that a great way to find excellent coverage and lower rates is to take these steps:

  1. Check Consumer Reports for the highest rated companies in terms of consumer satisfaction;
  2. Go to a web site that offers rate comparisons, like or;
  3. Go to your state’s insurance department web site and check to see which insurers have the fewest complaints.
  4. Call your three top choices to see what deals they offer. But be sure to compare identical coverages and in terms of deductibles and limits.


You can also check satisfaction results at the web site of the consumer satisfaction research group, J. D. Power (

            Oddly, in my own case I have found that AAA gives its members no particular breaks. They have always offered me the highest premium quotes of any company to which I have compared them.

  Lost your credit card?

            If you have lost or misplaced your credit card, or wallet here’s what to do. If you think you have not lost it somewhere “out there,” but merely misplaced it, let me tell you what I recently did when I couldn’t find my card during a recent visit to New York. I called the credit card company to report my concern. They offered to merely put a stop on the card, disabling it until I could determine if it was truly lost.

            In order to determine if anyone else used the card I asked for the last transaction for which it had been used. June 8th at Big Daddy’s Diner, was the reply. “Doh!” was my response. I must have left it there when I had dinner with my buddy Paul.

            I called Big Daddy’s and sure enough they had my card. Case closed.

            If you cannot track down your card in a similar fashion, here’s what to do. If your card is missing, put a stop on it. If your wallet is missing, file a police report in the place where you lost it and get a copy of the report.

            Let each company from which you had a credit card in the wallet know that your cards are missing and file fraud alerts with the three credit reporting companies: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.

            Notify your local department of motor vehicles so it can flag your file so that it becomes more difficult for a ne’er-do-well to impersonate you, and so that you can get a new license. Get a new debit or ATM card from your bank.

 Best Buy’s worst buy?

Best Buy has a great promotional offer going . . . not! Afraid your new state-of-the art electronic doo dad will soon be outdated? Fear not. Best Buy will buy it back within two years, four years for a TV. According to all you have to do is pay upfront for the “protection;” $70 for a laptop, netbook or tablet; 40 to 60 smackers for a cellular phone; and 60 to 350 bucks for a television set. An item returned within six months gets 50 percent back; between 18 and 24 months you can get 20 percent back, depending on condition; and for TVs more than two years old, they give you 10 percent. The refunds are in the form of Best Buy gift cards, the idea being that you apply the refunds to a new purchase.

            Before you go for this “deal,” think twice, or thrice. In effect, you are paying for insurance with a very limited benefit.

            And remember, 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.