Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Village Connection, November 2008, "Don't Be Afraid to Bargain"

By Erik Badia

In my previous column, I offered some advice on hybrid cars and what models are available. This time around we’ll talk about actually acquiring a vehicle and what you can do to make sure you get a good deal. Of course with the state of the economy, car loans—as with almost all loans—are becoming scarce. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are nonexistent. Here are some tips for everybody’s favorite pastime, car shopping!
Look around: This is an easy one, but it should be stressed. Don’t limit yourself to just your closest dealer. This island is littered with car dealers and chances are that you will find at least three to five different dealers for whatever make of car you are looking for on the Island. Shopping around at different dealers offers several advantages. First, you can compare prices between the dealers. Don’t assume that because a car has a set price that all dealers will give you the same quote. There is, in fact, quite a bit of variation, as a dealer can build hidden fees and costs into lease and finance payments. Secondly, you can leverage one dealer with another’s price quote. This may not always work, and it really depends on the salesman and dealership. This is helpful if you get a good quote at dealer A, but dealer B has the exact car you want. Most importantly, purchasing and servicing can be mutually exclusive. The dealership you buy your car from does not have to be the dealership where you service your car. If you live in Huntington and buy in Hampton Bays, you don’t have to drive there every time your car needs service.
Don’t be afraid to bargain: Car dealers are out to get the most money they can from you, so don’t be afraid to use some tactics of your own and try and keep some green in your pocket. When you get a quote for a car, and the math doesn’t seem quite right, don’t be afraid to question it. There is almost always room for salesman to lower prices if necessary, the key is making it necessary for them to do so. Good bargaining takes patience and nerve. Do your homework and get quotes online, find out what other dealers are selling the model you want for. Are other dealers offering incentives or rebates? Again, if you get a better quote, bring it in and let the salesman try to match it. Don’t be afraid to push them a little. Sometimes salesmen will try the no-budge approach. If they do so, don’t hesitate to get up and leave. They already have your information, and chances are they will either stop you before you get out of the dealership or they will call you in a short time to offer you a better deal. If they do not budge at all, the likelihood is that you will find a better deal somewhere else anyway.
Talk to banks: If you can’t get something you want, in terms of the lease or finance—for instance, the interest rate—go and talk to some banks on your own. Most dealerships have a network of banks that they work with, and many manufacturers have their own financing systems, but sometimes you can get a better rate at your own bank. If you can strike a good deal, you can take that to the dealer and it could save you thousands of dollars in the long run.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Village Connection, September 2008, "Buying Green"

By Erik Badia

While there’s no doubt our economy is in a downturn, virtually all of us still need to have reliable transportation for our everyday lives. If your budget is tight and you need a new vehicle, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. There are ways to ease the pain of buying a new car in this economy, however. Perhaps one of the best ways to save money in the long run is to scoop up one of the many new hybrid vehicles currently offered by a variety of auto manufactures. Not only will these vehicles save you green at the pump, there are also tax incentives that come along with them. According to the E.P.A., hybrids purchased or placed into service after December 31, 2005 may be eligible for a federal income tax credit of up to $3,400. Additionally, driving one of these vehicles lowers your ecological footprint, helping to save our environment from its constant struggle against us humans. Whether you’re in the market for a subcompact, sedan, S.U.V. or truck, you can find them all in hybrid versions. Here’s a look at some choices:

Compact/Subcompacts: Chances are you’ve seen a smart fortwo cruising around Long Island and wondered what it was. Since their January release in the United States, these micro-machine sized cars have sold well. smart is part of the Daimler-Benz auto group, and with dealerships in Smithtown and Roslyn, any Long Islander can have access to these unique automobiles. While the smart fortwo isn’t a hybrid, it offers up impressive fuel economy numbers with an EPA rated 33mpg city and 41mpg highway. Frightening as it may sound, the fortwo sports a wheelbase only 7 inches longer than the popular Honda Goldwing motorcycle, but that doesn’t mean that the pint sized coupe isn’t safe. In fact, the 2008 smart fortwo achieved the highest ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for front and side crashworthiness. But surely one of the best features of the fortwo is its low starting price, with a base model only setting you back $11,590. (See www.smartusa.com for more details)

Most everybody knows what a Toyota Prius is by now, and while it may be the most well known of the hybrid sedans, it is far from your only choice. The Prius has proven to be a very safe, reliable and fuel efficient vehicle, which has spurned its popularity. Along with that popularity, however, comes some baggage, mainly in the form of dealers asking over sticker price, less flexible leasing/financing options and very limited availability. So if you need a hybrid with some space, but don’t want to wait for a Prius, consider the Honda Civic sedan hybrid ($22,600 base—40/45mpg city/hwy), Toyota Camry hybrid ($25,650 base—33/34mpg), Nissan Altima hybrid ($25,480 base – 33/35mpg) and the Chevy Malibu/Saturn Aura hybrids ($25,545 base —26/34mpg; $24,550 base—26/34mpg). All of these hybrids feature starting prices under $26,000, get at least 34mpg on the highway and have room to seat 5 comfortably, plus all your wares.

Trucks/S.U.V.’s: If you find yourself needing the room and utility of a truck or S.U.V., don’t fret, you can still jump on the hybrid bandwagon. If you are in the market for a small S.U.V., you’ve got plenty of options, with the Saturn Vue hybrid ($26,270 base, 25/32mpg), the Ford Escape hybrid ($26,640 base, 34/30mpg), and it’s counter parts the Mercury Mountaineer Hybrid ($28,150 base, 34/30mpg) and the Mazda Tribute hybrid ($26,155 base, 34/30mpg). If you need more space, G.M. has got you covered with its lineup of large hybrid S.U.V.’s and trucks; the Chevy Tahoe hybrid ($50,490 base, 20/20mpg) and the upcoming ’09 Cadillac Escalade hybrid ($TBD, 20/21mpg) offer luxury, plenty of space and generous towing capabilities. If you need even more utility, take a look at the ’09 Chevy Silverado pickup truck hybrid, which is expected to get close to 21mpg on the highway.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Village Connection, August 2008, "Saving Money at the Pump"

By Erik Badia

 It’s pretty hard to ignore the sky-high price of gas. Since everyone is surely interested in saving some money, and summer is typically “road trip” season, let’s go over some tips for improving your gas mileage. Some of them may seem obvious, but the average driver does not realize just how often they sidestep these rules for good fuel economy. The first thing I would recommend is to start keeping track of your vehicle’s gas mileage—it’s easy and it will help you gauge your progress and success. Get a small pad of paper and a pen and stash it in your glove box or other easily accessed storage compartment. When you take your car to the gas station and fill up your tank, write down the exact mileage on your odometer and how many gallons it took to fill up (from the gas pump). The next time you fill up your tank, record these numbers again. To calculate your gas mileage, subtract your first odometer reading from your second one. This will tell you how many miles you've driven. Then divide this number by how many gallons it took to refill your car. The resulting number is your vehicle’s fuel consumption for that tank-full of gas. You may be surprised to find that it is a lot lower than you thought, or what the manufacturer claims. This is due to a combination of factors, including elevation, climate and most importantly—driving habits. But before we get to that, here are some things you can do to your vehicle to improve its fuel economy, most of which won’t cost you anything:

The Vehicle: First, check your tire pressures. This may seem irrelevant, but the fact is that underinflated tires can rob MPG’s from your car and cash from your wallet. The increased rolling resistance of an underinflated tire requires more energy to move. Make sure that your tires are up to the manufacturer’s recommended pressures and check them regularly, especially when there are big changes in temperature. Check your trunk, backseats and other storage areas in the car—are you lugging around stuff that serves no purpose? Eliminating extra weight is another easy way to improve fuel efficiency. Again, more weight equals more energy required to move the vehicle. This goes for external accessories as well—that roof cargo carrier or bike rack strapped to your vehicle is robbing you of aerodynamic efficiency at highway speeds, so if you’re not using it, take if off. Of course, if your vehicle is older, particularly if it has high mileage, make sure you’ve done your maintenance. While it may seem like a lot of money up front, a few simple tweaks like changing your spark plugs, air and fuel filters could save you hundreds of dollars in the near-future. These tricks may seem insignificant, but if you add them up, they could save you some green at the pump, where every dollar counts.

The Driver: The straight truth is that you will save far more money at the pump by changing your habits behind the wheel than you ever could by the aforementioned vehicle tuning (that’s not to say you shouldn’t try those tips, however!). The easy way to bump your gas mileage up is to take it easy while driving. It may be difficult at first, but slowing down and driving more like “miss daisy” will help save you money. That includes trying to coast when coming to stop lights or signs, avoiding sudden and/or aggressive acceleration and keeping your speeds down on the highway. Just slowing from 65 to 55 mph on the expressway will make a noticeable difference in your efficiency. Another helpful technique on the highway is to use the cruise control—even small fluctuations in speed on the highway can reduce your mpg. Of course, skip any unnecessary driving and try to combine errands or trips. If you really try, you will see your fuel mileage increase and more money in your bank account at the end of the month!

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Village Connection, July/August 2008, "Picking the Right Automotive Shop - Part II"

By Erik Badia

Last month I gave you some basic guidelines on how to find an honest and reliable automotive shop. This month I will expand a little on how to properly snoop around, and what to look for. Remember, this is not intended to be a fail-proof way to find the best shop on the planet; it is intended to be a guide and offer advice on finding a dependable and trustworthy automotive
repair business. Here are some more tips for finding the right place:

Check out the workspace: Your vehicle will be worked on and stored in this space, potentially for several days. Granted it is a workshop and it will probably be "dirty," but that doesn't mean it can't be neat and efficient. A tidy and efficient shop will ensure the safety of your vehicle and should save you money on your invoice. If the technician working on your 'car is able to work quickly and smoothly, it will save him time and you money.

Some things you want to look for: Do they leave tools, parts or other items on cars? Do they cover the fenders when working on them, or are they leaning on the paint? If wheels, bumpers or other parts of cars are off, where are they being stored - are they lying on the ground piled on top of one another, or stacked and stored safely and neatly? If the shop is large and has several cars in it, are they placed far enough apart so that there won't be any door-to-door (or other) contact? Do the lifts look like they are maintained?

What is the overall appearance of the shop?: Is there space to walk or are there parts and tools everywhere? Are the technicians working or hanging out? Granted everyone is entitled to breaks, but if you notice that this is a regular occurrence, you might want to check the labor times on your invoice. This is not to say that all good shops are neat and tidy and all dodgy shops are messy and cluttered. This is just one factor of many. However, as with someone's desk in an office, sometimes a visual inspection can tell you about that persons work habits.

Check out the proprietor: If you are going to a small, privately-owned shop, try to meet with the owner if at all possible. Talk to him or her about the shop. How long they have been in business, what their policies are and how they operate their business. Find out what type of guarantee they offer on their work. If the symptom you brought your car in for reappears, a part they installed fails, or there is a problem with workmanship quality in two weeks, what type of recourse will you have? What about in two months? If at all possible, get this in writing. The warranty should be on the invoice or estimate, but if it is not, again, try to get it in writing.

If you are using a dealership, these tactics are best accomplished by talking to the person who runs the whole service operation, usually called the Service Manager or equivalent title, and again, by reading as much as you can online.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Village Connection, May/June 2008, "Picking the Right Automotive Shop"

By Erik Badia

Getting involved with an automotive shop can be like having a relationship. When things are going well, you're as happy as can be; once things go badly, you'll be just as miserable as you are angry-hence the importance of choosing a good, reliable automotive shop. Naturally you're not going to just take the shop owner's word for it; so what can be done to find out if the business where you can potentially spend thousands of dollars is reputable and fair?

There are several important issues when choosing the right automotive repair shop. Depending on the year of the vehicle and the complexity of its systems, you may be forced in certain instances to use the dealership-this is especially true of very late model vehicles. However, many of these tips can be used in finding a good dealership to service your vehicle, as well. Do your research: Depending on the size of the shop and how many customers it services, you may be able to find information on the internet. This is a good start, as there are thousands of internet sites, web forums and the like where one can find valuable customer feedback (good and bad) about shops in the area.

If you do find information on the particular shop you are thinking about using, make sure to read customer accounts carefully. Sometimes customers get upset about things that are beyond the control of the shop and they may give a negative review, even if it is not warranted. Use common sense here, if the circumstances of the customer's account seem suspicious or unreasonable, you may want to take that review with a grain of salt or discount it. Check in the waiting area or lounge of the business to see if they have any positive letters or other feedback from customers. Also be sure to ask friends and family if they have used the shop, or know anyone that has, and see what their experiences have been like.

Investigate the business: Beyond customer feedback, you can do a little bit of snooping yourself. Check to make sure the shop has a New York State business certificate and that they are licensed by the state to do repairs (there should be a metal sign somewhere on the building that has the business' repair number). Before you do anything with the shop, make sure to ask whether they charge for estimates and find out what their labor rate is per hour. When you get an estimate for work, don't make a decision on the spot, bring it home, review it and have someone else look at it.

One important thing to look for on the shop's work order or estimate is the way in which they describe the repair and how they will perform it. In order to leave themselves more wiggle room and/or to take advantage of customers, sometimes shops will lump many separate repairs into one lump sum (i.e. "Remove front suspension, install new shock absorbers, brakes and rotate tires - $2,000"), or they will be very vague in their description. What you really want to see is a fully itemized list of repairs with the labor time and part cost for each separate item.