The Great Air Conditioning Caper: How Not to Get Ripped Off if Your Cooler Crashes
It was noisy, but out of that noise, came no relief from the heat. I’d lived in my house for twelve years. The air conditioning unit had come with it. It was a good one, but as with all major appliances, there comes a time. I’d already replaced the hot water heater, the furnace. Man, that gets expensive. As a disabled veteran living primarily on a disability income, huge replacement costs that run into the four figures can put a major damper onto life, for anyone, much less those of us on a fixed income.
However, as the earth continues to heat up and Colorado summers continue to feel more and more like Tuscon (and boy do they) there was no question that I had to do something. We had day after day of plus 95-degree weather, and no relief in sight. Opening the windows wasn’t an option. By this point I’d already installed several ceiling fans, and a very expensive awning to help mitigate the effect of the pounding sun on my deck. The heat shimmered into the house through the sliding glass door even when it was closed. Prior to the awning I couldn’t step on the deck. Three years prior, when spring arrived, the 150-year-old walnut that had provided vast and lovely shade over the south end of the lawn had succumbed, leaving my grass and the entire south end of the house to suffer in the heat. I’d done all I could short of replacing the AC, but it was time.
Two years ago when faced with struggling appliances I’d enlisted the help of a local company by the name of Good Neighbor. The name was supposed to provide comfort and trust. They were the ones who had installed my new water heater and furnace. I had a service contract with them, so I called up and requested someone to come out.
When Ronnie arrived, he marched out to the unit which sat just outside my basement office window. Within minutes he announced that I “absolutely had to have a new air conditioner, and by the way that will be $6000.”
I informed Ronnie, politely but firmly, that not only did I not have $6000, but I was not willing to go into a payment plan. He pushed. Asked about my finances. The hair on the back of my neck rose but I kept my cool. I pushed back a lot harder and said that under no circumstances was I going to buy a new AC. It wasn’t an option.
Somehow, miraculously, faced with my intransigence, Ronnie managed to tweak a few things. The AC lumbered on, and continued to cool my house for two more years.
Let’s be clear. Ronnie expected me, a 63 year-old woman at the time, to be a pushover. That’s a seriously bad assumption.
However this year the AC was dying, and I knew it. I called Good Neighbor and asked again. They sent Ronnie back out.
Of course they did. The company informed me that my service contract had expired the month before, but since I’d made major purchases with them, they allowed me this free visit.
Ronnie, who remembered me, again marched out to the AC unit. In a few minutes he had identified the problem.
“It’s the compressor,” he said, showing me the output and the stats. “It’s dying. You have to replace it.”
The cost? $2800. Just for the compressor. I figured that installation would be extra.
Again. Ronnie pushed me hard. Argued with me. Asked invasive, personal, pushy questions about my finances. I invited him out of my house before I clocked him. I did tell him that he had no right whatseover to ask me about my personal finances. It rolled right off him. Ronnie was determined.
So was I.
As soon as Ronnie was out the door I began my research. Knowing the compressor was dead, I had an idea of what to ask and how to ask it. I researched AC units, decided on Amana, and went to work.
Here’s what I found:
I made six phone calls. Five of the calls — including one call to a company that had been referred to me through a trusted friend — ended in a hangup, and here’s why.
Each of those five companies demanded to send out their technicians to get an assessment done, at prices ranging from $100–200. I informed these people that I already knew the problem. They pushed back and said that they had to have THEIR people do it. Pure profit. I hung up.
The other piece is that when they send their techs out in this kind of a situation, and flat out refuse to give you a price estimate for either repair or replacement, they have techs working on commission (https://abc13.com/archive/8656960/). You can take that to the bank. These people had no interest in giving me an estimate on repair or replacement costs because to do so undermines the tech’s ability to upsell you to products and services that are vastly overpriced. You can’t compare and make a good decision and that’s part of the agenda.
Meanwhile you’re sweltering in the heat, they know it, and that’s also part of the agenda. They bank on people’s desperation, and that is how they make their money. They also bank on folks not doing their homework, and doing business with the first company they call. This is classic opportunism.
On my sixth call I reached a company that wasn’t as aggressively advertised. The woman who answered the phone also answered my questions. She told me that not only could I replace the entire AC unit but also the coil that sat on top of my furnace for $2800, with a warranty, installation included. Full stop.
The Amana unit I wanted would cost me all of an extra $100. She even took the time to educate me on the units, who made them, how to save a few bucks here and there.
What do you think?
They sent a man out in no time, and the unit was swiftly installed, working, and the house was blessedly cool.
When there was a minor performance hiccup two days later that same man was right back out in no time, checking everything. Since then the AC unit has been perfect, the house has been cooled, and I was happy to fork over the full payment on my credit card.
When people are in extremis, they won’t take the time to do their due diligence. The problem is that unscrupulous dealers take advantage of the extreme weather and folks’ desire to be comfortable. People end up paying vastly more for something that a little patience and a little pushback can get them at a far more reasonable cost.
This is true across the board, not just in the AC industry.
The Argument for Commissions
There are those who feel that commission payment plans for techs is a good thing: https://www.servextra.com/11-things-to-know-about-commission-based-pay-for-service-techs/.
I disagree. While this article makes some good points, you cannot always weed out bad operators. People do what they are given incentives to do, and with the cost of living rocketing, that tech is going to go for a big-ticket item every single time. Hell, look, I’m in sales, and I would do precisely the same thing. Besides, if he is valued as a company rainmaker, what on earth do you expect him to do? If you provide significant incentives for techs who get referrals, who earn the company high ratings for trust, for a broad range of client-happiness-based behaviors that rake in new business, then he won’t rake over the client for that single sale for unnecessary or grossly-overpriced products and services. Pay the person a decent salary, and provide additional incentives for work that benefits both the customer AND the business, and watch what happens. My, my, what a creative, consumer-focused idea that is. A good neighbor policy. Unlike Good Neighbor, in other words.
As temperatures rise, and our AC units struggle with the additional load to deal with Mama Nature and an aging population (heat kills, let’s be clear here, it’s no joke), then this kind of ripoff is going to get a great deal worse. Here’s a how-to article you might want to read: https://www.dallasnews.com/news/watchdog/2016/10/14/watchdog-avoid-getting-ripped-air-conditioning-heating-tech.
Look. There are good people out there, and I found a business that dealt with me fairly and responsibly. They exist. On the other hand, here’s fair warning. For anyone who has ever had to hang out after a hurricane, and I have, you remember how the cost of water, repairs, tree removal and every single other thing you can imagine shot so sky high that people were nearly broke before repairs even began. Corruption, graft and opportunism are widespread when folks are in trouble and desperate. Makes no difference that there are laws against it. As consumer protection organizations are increasingly gutted by this Administration (please see what the Administration is doing to my peeps in the military (https://www.npr.org/2018/08/13/637992389/white-house-takes-aim-at-financial-protections-for-military) you can bet that similar actions are going to create an open season on the rest of us for ripoffs.
NEVER EVER accept the first proposal. Take a deep breath. Start your research. Hold firm. The moment someone argues with you, hang up. If a provider insists on sending out a tech, invite them to take a walk. Take your time, take copious notes, and don’t be afraid to call people’s bluff. Find out if you have a consumer protection agency that is still in business, has some teeth and can back you up. Even if you don’t, go into any negotiation fully armed with solid data. Know the costs. Know how the techs get paid. And know what you’re willing to pay based on what your replacement unit costs and a reasonable estimate of repair costs.
Never ever act out of desperation if you can help it. Remember, those of us past a certain age grew up without air conditioning. I did, in Florida, in the Sixties. Somehow I survived, as do billions all over the world. It’s not going to do you horrible harm to give it a few days and build your business case for a fair price and fair treatment. Learn how to bite back and protect your wallet.