Sunday, March 16, 2008

MINI Madness

Strap yourself in!
It's gonna be a long, bumpy ride!

It was 2003 and I was about 6 months from my Accord's lease expiring. I was searching for another car - this time to buy - and a coworker suggested a MINI Cooper.


I had never heard of it.

A MINI Love Story

I ventured to John Roberts BMW (my closest MINI dealer) to test drive the hottest thing landing on American soil. I instantly fell in love with the sucker because it was, well, so different. Driving the car made me feel like a combination of Austin Powers meets Evil Knievel meets nurd-boy.

After extreme inner debates pouring over all the whistles and bells I wanted tricked-out on the artful car, I eagerly threw a 1,000 clams down to secure my order in advance. The MINI could be custom-built in 3 months, but I ponied-up 6 months in advance to allow enough time for the car to arrive to the U.S. and ultimately to Dallas soil.

MINI really has a great ad campaign and works to create a MINI Movement with their owners. I was hooked. In addition to a postal campaign, there was an online portal where I could sign-in and check the status of where my MINI was. Each day I'd routinely log-in and double check the remaining dates against the estimated arrival delivery date circled on my calendar.

Turns out I wasn't the only one eagerly awaiting the MINI arrival. My coworkers were all excited, too, and chomping at the bit to be one of the first to go for a spin in the new kid on the block. Ads, tchotchkies and emails all sporting MINI pin-ups began coming to me via coworkers further supporting the craze.

The MINI Has Landed

I was able to unload the Accord without a hitch - I sold it to a coworker in my company's accounting department who patiently waited for it and loved it as much as I loved my MINI to be. Finally the day arrived when I received the call: The MINI was in! Little did I know at the time, but this was where my fairy tale started to turn nightmare.

I thought I'd be able to pick up the car that night after waiting six months, right? Wrong. But they called me, right? Right, but wrong! My sales person said they would need FOUR DAYS to get the car ready because they had received a shipment of over 50 MINIs. WHO HOO FOR YOU! Regardless of the fact that I pre-ordered months in advance, I must have been promptly pushed back in "priority" by the dealership. "FIFO" meet "FILO" (First In Last Out).

On Day 4, I had handed-over my Accord and after work was dropped off at John Roberts to pick-up my new baby.

There he was: "The Silver Bullet," as I coined him. He only sported a little over a 100 horsepower but it wasn't the size of the motor that counted, but the motion in the ocean (or in this case, my ability to perform hair-pin turns literally on a dime).

My heart skipped every other beat for the first few minutes of being introduced to my mail-order groom there on the showroom floor. Just like a parent frantically inspecting their newborn baby's fingers and toes, I, too, was reviewing the personal particulars of this vehicle that would ensure it was the baddest boy on the road.

Make and model? Check!
Body Color? Check!
Roof Color? Check!
Aluminum alloy wheels? Check!
Black dimpled leather seats? Check!
Sunroof? Check!
Heated Seats and Mirrors? Check!
Premium Sound System?

Premium Sound System?

PREMIUM SOUND SYSTEM?

This story took a tragic turn for the worse. If we had been on a plane, this would be the point where the flight attendants jump out the window, rosaries are pulled-out, and the emergency oxygen cups drop from the ceiling.

My premium sound system was back in the motherland!

My salesperson was out that day so I had a sales "sub" who was quick to ask "Are you SURE you ordered premium sound?" I was like WTF? Do you honestly think I have waited all these months drooling and finger-tapping for my wheels to arrive and I might have forgotten what I ordered, I said!?! The sub went to the back and pulled my paperwork. "Yeah, you ordered it," he said.

So there I was. Standing before my premium soundless MINI. I threw out every option I could think of... starting with could they install the sound system here in Dallas? I was confidently assured "NO." They did offer me the bright idea of me taking the car to CAR TUNES to have them install a third-party sound system but I wouldn't have it. I wanted the Harman Kardon sound system with silver shark fin-shaped speaker grills. Not some HACK JOB done by a non-sanctioned MINI shop. Turns out, too, as I asked the magical question "Wouldn't this invalidate my electrical warranty" the answer was YES, so I clearly knew what I had to do.

I had to reject my MINI love. Be willing to abort mission. Pull out. Be without a car until we could settle up this fine mess.

The following day I spoke to my sales rep and asked what they could do about the situation. Turns out not much. They told me my options: 1) Take the car "as is" and they wouldn't charge me the extra $500 for the sound system (um, thanks, since it didn't have it?!?); 2) I could order another car and wait 3 months for it to arrive; or 3) Wait another 2-3 weeks and accept an alternate vehicle that the dealership pre-ordered.

I culled through a listing of the cars coming in and settled on one that was not an exact match, but close.

Things escalated to the head of Sales when I asked to be put in a loaner car for the 2-3 weeks until the car came in because my Accord was no longer mine. I was told that was not acceptable for the dealership. "Patrick, it's not our fault you sold your car early."

REALLY!?! Sold my car "early?" Clearly I was dealing with a mental midget head of sales who knew nothing of the facts. Or how to provide customer service in a time when they were the ones who had screwed-up, not me.

Let's recap: I gave a deposit in advance, waited 6 MONTHS and even waited 4 days for the dealership to pull their heads out "making ready" my car and this is the response I got? The icing on the cake was when they admitted to me that custom MINIs had shown-up before missing a few features here and there. It was beyond me why they didn't catch it before my butt was in the driver's seat.

Sadly, I realized the dealership couldn't give a rat's ass about my satisfaction so I offered a way out of the pain by asking for my money back and surprisingly, they gave it back! Sans six months interest, of course. Thanks a lot for your "service," John Robertsmutherf*kin' BMW!

From that moment forward that dealership was dead to me. If my powers were such, I would have summoned a giant pile of crap to implode the dealership bigger than the pile of crap they bestowed on me. So, as a mere mortal, I went out of my way to steer friends wanting a MINI to the Arlington dealership and a few months after my debacle, I was pleased to learn the dealership's namesake was no more.

What To Do... What To Do...

I sat alone in my house trying to come-up with a viable option. I had waited so long for the MINI to arrive that I decided I had to forge ahead. I'd find another MINI from another dealer - just not the one who abandoned their responsibility and left me high, dry and full of rage.

I made a list of have-to-haves and nice-to-haves and shared it with the next closest dealers in Arlington, San Antonio, Houston and Baton Rouge. The cars were selling like hot cakes so inventory was limited at the dealerships. A nice guy from Baton Rouge found the needle in the haystack: a silver/black number on a boat bound for the East Coast.

A $500 delivery fee later plus incremental $750 for a navigation system I didn't want but had to pay for in order to get the deal done and the car was mine. In a little over 2 weeks, the MINI was dropped off from a covered delivery truck at my front curb like a LUNAR LANDER. It was awesome!

Over the next 3 years, me and The Silver Bullet had the greatest of times. From flying over curbs to jetting in and out of traffic. It was a match made in heaven.

Until it came time for service.

The car wasn't a lemon but there were obvious production issues - "kinks" let's call them - that needed to be worked out. My nav system's software had to be re-installed, both door power window motors went out and one day the car actually turned off while I was in stop and go rush hour traffic. I was told that was "normal" because of a known micro chip issue. Um, OK!

I dealt with each blow over the three years and chocked-it up to my investment in being a MINI owner. What was hard to swallow, however, was every time I took the car to Moritz BMW in Arlington, I was reminded that I didn't buy the car from them and somehow the service I would receive would be less than the usual.

In June of '06 the motherload of screw-ups occurred when I took the MINI in for its 3 year check-up. I was told the dealership would put me in a rental (not a loan car, but a rental from the on-site National car rental). I was fine with that as I usually had to arrange my own pick-ups back to work.

What I wasn't fine with was that I made an appointment to drop The Bullet off a week in advance and after checking-in the car and waiting for the rental guy to show, I was told they were out of rental cars and I'd have to wait for who knows how long until they could find one somewhere else.

I explained I had made an appointment and I was told the rental outfit didn't take appointments - only the service area did - and it had been a busy day (keep in mind it was 8 am).

I had a 9 am meeting back in downtown Dallas so I unchecked my car from service. My service tech who appeared "surprised" at what happened told me to give him a few days and he'd make the situation right.

Two days later I received a phone call and was told they would drop-off a loaner car but to give them a few days to work my car's check-up into their schedule. Once again I bit my tongue (not an easy task for me) and exhaled.

Moritz had my car for ONE FULL WEEK for the routine service. Wow. In one week I could have flown in a balloon to London for crumpets and back but apparently the routine service was pretty complicated.

The day finally arrived when the car was ready and a porter was deployed for downtown so we could swap cars. There I was hanging out on the corner of Crack Whore Lane and Defecation Station waiting for the guy to show-up and finally he arrived.

I asked him if I needed to pay over the phone for the service (assuming they were going to charge me for this job) and he looked like a ghost who had just seen his own reflection. The porter sat there in my car staring back at me and I asked if he was going to keep my car until I paid. WTF?!?!

So two phone calls later and I was on the phone with a lady giving her my credit card info, which I had to fumble out of my wallet on the street corner. Not good, not good.

3 - 2 - 1... Blastoff!

By this point, my blood pressure had shot through the roof. I was more than ticked-off. I was hacked-off at the blatant ignorance. That day I realized I was far too old to drive a MINI and with no other service options in the D/FW metro area, the time had come for the MINI and I to split.

I set my eyes on a dealership that was close-by and 3 months later I was driving my new baby: a Lexus IS. To date our relationship has only been good. The only challenge is that I have a hard time pulling into my driveway because the car has a low profile and the Shitty of Dallas has concrete layered my street so many times if I don't invest about 30 seconds strategically pointing the car into the driveway just so, I'll rip-out my transmission. And my hair.

The MINI Saga is a good life lesson in the importance of choosing who and how you do business.

My purchase decision was initially compromised when John Roberts dropped the ball and refused to accept responsibility for their mistake. Insult to injury was topped-off by Moritz for the sub-standard service they dished for three years of what could have been a return customer for live situation.

For me, I should have known to buy the car from a local dealer and invest in a therapist and a big happy pill of patience.

MINI called me a few months later on a routine service follow-up and when I told them I didn't own the car any longer, that was that. There were no questions as to why I lost my marbles by defecting from the MINI Union. I was now dead to them.

Sidebar: I wondered how my original order was screwed-up and I think I solved that conundrum. The order was hand-written on an order form and signed by me and the sales person. I can only guess that at some point it was keyed-into an electronic ordering system and someone might have engaged in coffee talk, taken a bathroom break or had a slight seizure in the middle of keying my order.

In hindsight, I should have asked for an electronic print-out of the order. Had I done so, I would have been able to figure out earlier that a (John Roberts BMW) + b (Moritz BMW) = me getting screwed.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Down The Drain

This featurette validates the truth behind the statement "when bad things happen to good people."

Let's table the validity of my goodness for now and focus on the facts. I can assure you this was one heckuva ride that resulted in numerous "WTFs", clenched fists and head-thunks levied against the wall.


It was May, 2005 and we had just purchased our newest project: a 1920s house that had been foreclosed on twice back-to-back. It had been completely vacant for a year and the previous owners had cherry-picked most embellishments out of the place (except the home's battered soul, which was in need of a RedBull booster shot). The front yard's grass was a lovely shade of dead while the back yard looked like a neglected swampland.

I was ready for the challenge after a relatively successful eight-year relationship in my first home - a 1950s "cottage" in the Lakewood area in Dallas and Joe eagerly joined in on the cause.

Breathe In? Breathe Out!

The house was in a sought-after area and just on the market so we snatched it up quickly before selling our current homes despite what common sense would advise. We could barely afford the two houses we were in and now had the responsibility for three houses. So we organized the sale of two homes plus a joint move-in, which required lots of swift coordination.

There were obvious projects needing quick attention. Scraped ceilings, a new range for the kitchen to replace the one that was "removed" by the previous owners and literally pumping putrescence out of the boarded-up pool, which was filled with leaves, limbs and cloudy, black water nearly 3 feet deep.

Projects like this make you discover what you're willing to subject yourself to!

Out of all the projects - one should have been a slam-dunk: repairing some plumbing in the only bathroom downstairs (one would call this the master bathroom in a small, old house like this).

Little did we know a plumbing company I had used at my former house "Pyramid Plumbing" would take our money and leave us without an operable tub/shower for months. This was going to be one slippery ride.

I had used Pyramid Plumbing before at my old house without issue and went ahead and paid for the job up front to get them started (more on this later). The plumber began work on the project which involved reducing the number of vintage porcelain faucet handles on the wall from five to one sleek puppy.

Halfway through the project the plumber literally vanished after cutting a pipe flush with the tile wall (shown at right). After numerous phone calls initiated only by me married with excuses from Pyramid Plumbing's front desk, it was obvious the guy had abandoned the job because he screwed up.

Three months after patiently waiting for the company to stand up and fix the mess and after following the BBB's worthless process, I sent a demand letter to the company via certified mail, which they promptly ignored. I realized the only hope was to take this company to court.

Court. Small Claims Court

The case was pretty much an open/closed case. I had enough documentation to land this guy behind bars (or so I thought). Prior to the hearing, the owner and I were able to talk freely outside the judge's chambers. I showed him the pictures, the documentation and he still didn't want to fix the situation.

The hearing took about 10 minutes of which I was declared the victor by the judge. Sadly, the judge did not award me the full amount of the work (which was never completed) but a small portion. The judge turned to the perp and said "Do you have a check" and the guy said "No." The Judge said it was up to the plaintiff and defendant to settle out of court.

Days turned into weeks. Weeks into months. Not only was I screwed, I was getting the double shaft!

I called the court's clerk and explained the situation. I was told that if the defendant didn't pay up I'd have to pay MORE MONEY to have a court-appointed Sheriff or Constable visit the company to try and get the funds by confiscating owned (not leased) property and selling it in an auction. The best part is there were no guarantees that 1) they owned any property outright; 2) it was worth anything; or 3) that they could even sell it.

So there I was. At the end of the line. And at the end of my emotional roller coaster for the better part of a year.

And... Scene!

In the end, this episode closed with a complete loss of respect and confidence in our judicial system which had me chasing my tail for months.

The lessons learned from this fiasco are clear:

1) If you give people the opportunity to screw you, they probably will.

2) Never pay for work upfront even if you know the person and have a previous working relationship with them.

3) Always make sure you hold the upper hand in any contracting relationship.

4) Seek to do business through you referral network (friends) vs. trolling for companies via newspaper coupons or door flyers. You can get lucky, just don't expect it. We've had success with AngiesList where you can read other people's write-ups on companies they've done business with.

5) Try and work with bona fide companies vs. independents, where it's easier for them to fly under the radar (disappear) in situations where they don't take the high road.

6) Most importantly, don't rely on our judicial system to bail you out of a situation even if you have complete documentation, witnesses or even video diary back-up. Read up on the small claims process.

You may find the people enabling false hopes and perpetuating shoddy service aren't the ones who have split with your money and left jobs undone. They are the ones representing a pointless process that in the end, protects the guilty.