Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas, Festivus, Et.Al.

It's Christmas Eve in Florida...a cloudy, muggy day. That's just the way I like it, or at least when compared to Chicago snow. But I'm really not prepared for the holiday yet; this year, we did a "Skipping Christmas" maneuver and took a week-long cruise from December 9th to the 16th. That means we spent seven days of prime preparation time chowing at the buffet, lounging at the pool, and relaxing in the spa. We did do one Christmas-preparatory activity: We attended the onboard gingerbread house-building seminar. Sadly, due to Customs rules that forbid bringing opened food shore, we had to abandon our creation when we disembarked.

A week may not seem like much time to lose, but it is when you have a seven-day work week. I did manage to put up some unlighted decorations outside, and my husband assembled our silver aluminum Christmas tree, but that was the extent of our efforts this year. I suppose it all balances out, since last year we went whole hog due to being featuring on the Celebration Holiday Home Tour.

Even though we're well into the evening of Christmas Eve, I haven't quite caught the holiday spirit yet. That's probably because the Turner "Christmas Story" 24-hour marathon doesn't begin for another two hours. For me, Christmas doesn't truly begin until I've seen Ralphie beg for the Holy Grail of presents: A Red Ryder BB gun.

Actually, I won't get to tune in until tomorrow. Pretty soon we'll head out to Disney World for dinner at the California Grill atop the Contemporary Resort. We'll watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks from our restaurant vantage point, and then we'll head off to Com Pres for the 11 p.m. candlelight service. By the time we're done with all that, I know that it will feel like Christmas.

On Christmas Day, it will be a Chinese feast with friends in honor of the "Christmas Story" finale. Last year, we added our own comic touch by finding a long, black hair in the orange beef. I'm not sure if we can top that in 2006, but I'm sure that we'll try.

On the home front, we've decided to embrace the fact that our tree is virtually decoration-free. My husband did string some sad-looking plastic bead-and-bell garland around its boughs, but neither one of us felt like tackling the ornaments. Since it is aluminum, we've decided to declare it a Festivus Tree...a bit fancier than the traditional Festivus Pole, but fashionably shabby-looking nonetheless.

In addition to the Airing of Grievances and the Feats of Great Strength, we will incorporate our own Christmas tradition: The Scratching of the Lottery Tickets. Since neither my husband nor I ever knows what we should buy for each other, we've solved the problem in a simple fashion. We buy a slew of instant lottery tickets, divide them up, and indulge in a gambling frenzy on Christmas morning. But this year we've decided to extend the fun...although Festivus is technically December 23rd, I think it makes more sense to extend the holiday season in any way possible. Thus, our customized celebration will take place on the 26th.

All in all, it promises to be another interesting holiday here in Celebration. It's a far cry from the first Christmas after we bought Duloc Manor. We'd only owned it for four short months, so we didn't have a Christmas tree or any decorations yet. We bought a little tabletop tree complete with decorations and erected it in the front room. We've long since graduated to "real" trees, but we still own that first little piece of holiday cheer.


Ask an Expert - Visit my Virtual Office at Kasamba

Thursday, December 21, 2006

December Horse Play

Although I'm feeling pretty Christmasy, it's hard to go whole hog when the temperatures are flirting with the 80s. That's what I love about living in Florida; today, December 21, just three days away from Christmas Eve, I just returned home from a five hour horseback ride. Back in Chicago, I'd probably be bundled up and shivering.

Actually, I didn't originally plan to ride that long today. I went out in Lake Louisa State Park with the barn owner, who had a rare day off. Usually her riding time is very limited, but for once the work was under control so we could take a long, relaxing ride. We ended up going out to the South Trail, which is as far as you can possibly go...literally from one end of the state park to the other.

The weather was perfect for riding. It was warm, but not blisteringly hot, and the bugs were blissfully absent. The day was beautiful, the horses were energetic, and our butts were ready for the abuse of some long hours in the saddle.

Figment was happy to have a buddy along, since we usually ride by ourselves. But even though he is very brave when I ride him alone, he turns into a thousand-pound wimp when he's in a herd. He insists on staying behind the other horse(s), and if the other equine balks, he has to do the same. He'll do it even when the other horse is balking at something that Figgie has seen a dozen times. Thankfully, he usually won't spook too badly (i.e. bolt or jump to the side) even if another horse is spooking, unless there really is something terrifying (like a horse-eating deer or a homicidal flock of birds).

Boudreaux, the barn owner's horse, is very calm and well behaved 95 percent of the time, but he likes to make up for it during the other five percent, tossing in a major spook every now and then. Poor Boudreaux attracts deer like his manure attracts flies. Granted, there are a lot out in the state park, but we always see a disproportinate number when Boo is along. They like to surprise him by popping up suddenly out of the brush, so of course he has to leap wildly to the side. The barn owner is quite good at riding out his silliness, but it's always quite a surprise to be plodding along calmly and then, suddenly...EEEEKKKK!!! A DEADLY DEER!

Figment is no angel himself. Like Boo, he's good most of the time, but then his Evil Figgie personality takes over. He tosses in a spook every now and then and gets an attitude problem if I try to force him to walk in the front of the pack.

But for the most part the horses were very good, especially considering that we probably covered over 15 miles today. We had neglected to pack any human snacks (I always bring a handful of horse cookies); all we had was water, and our stomaches started rumbling three hours into the ride. Fortunately, a long stretch of the trail runs through an orange grove. We stopped for a sweet citrus snack and allowed the horses to have some grazing time.

The ride was great fun, but by the time we had reached Hour Four, our butts were ready for a break. As we stretched into Hour Five and turned onto the trail home, I could almost hear my rump rejoicing. On the way, we stopped at the water trough at the trail head, and both Boo and Figgie drank like dehydrated camels.

When we got back to the barn, we hosed the boys down and turned them out in the round pen, which was supplied with several stacks of peanut hay. Back in Illinois, Figment ate a timothy/alfalfa mix hay, and the first time he was served the peanut variety, he gave it an evil look. Eventually he started eating it grudgingly. Then suddenly he realized that it's actually a taste treat, and now he would rather eat peanut hay than fresh grass, carrots, and even apple cookies!

As I watched Figgie blissfully rolling in the dirt before he buried his nose in a hay feast, I reminded myself that Christmas Eve was less than 72 hours away. What a wonderment to be basking in the sunshine, wearing a t-shirt, and enjoying the warmth.

It reminded me of a long ago Christmas Eve when there was a strange anomaly in Chicago. At the time, I had owned my first horse, Cochise, for maybe two or three years, so it was over 20 years ago. We'd had the usual snowfall, but on this particular December 24th, the temperature went up into the 70s!! All of the snow melted, flooding the wide, open fields where we used to ride. The water was not quite up to a horse's knees, so 'Chise and I cantered through the flooded grass, sending up a stream of water, delighting in the fact that we were doing this the day before Christmas!! It's quite a standout memory to be wearing a t-shirt and playing in water at that time of year in Chicago.

That night, the weather was stranger still. I went to a barn down the road to meet up with some friends, and we were all gathered around the fireplace in the game room, listening to the thunderstorm outside. Yes, a thunderstorm! I can't even describe how odd it was to hear the rumbling ruckus outside at a time of the year when a blizzard would have been the norm.

Now, sunshine, water play, and rainstorms in December are the norm for me. Yes, it's a little hard to equate with Christmas, but that's just fine with me. It's just one of the many pleasures of living in the Sunshine State...a Christmas "present" that I can enjoy all winter long.

Ask an Expert - Visit my Virtual Office at Kasamba

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Quest for Cocoa Wheats

Ah, the comfort foods of childhood! One of my favorites was Coco Wheats, a hot cereal along the same lines as oatmeal or cream of wheat. As a matter of it, the best way to describe it is a cocoa-ized version of cream of wheat, although that's not completely accurate. Even though it is chocolately, it is not sweetened at all. As a kid, I sprinkled it liberally with sugar and drowned it in a pool of milk, stirring it into a teeth-jangling, soupy glop.

When I reached adulthood, I usually kept a box or two of Coco Wheats in the cupboard. I lost the taste for sugar, but it made a yummy cocoa treat when I was in the mood for a quick fill-'er-up. Although it's good at any time of the year, I've always perceived it as a cold-weather food. Like oatmeal, it sticks to your ribs, so it makes a handy breakfast or a way to attack an evening craving. Because it is warm and hearty, it tastes particularly good when the cold winds are blowing outside and snowflakes are swirling around the window panes.

When we moved to Celebration, Coco Wheats slipped from my mind. You don't see many snowflakes in Florida unless they are made of soap, and "cold" is a relative term. For two years, my inner child did without, but suddenly this winter a craving cropped up out of nowhere. It was during our last cold snap, when temperatures in the Orlando area were actually flirting with the freeze point. My inner thermostat clicked, and suddenly I wanted to fill up on some pre-hibernation comfort food.

I dutifully added Coco Wheats to the shopping list, and as hubby and I navigated the aisles of Publix, I headed to the cereal aisle with an air of assurance. My eyes scanned the offerings: Oatmeal in various shapes and forms, Cream of Wheat, Malt-o-Meal, grits.....argh!! Something was missing!

I was aghast that such a staple item would be absent. My husband scanned the shelves in case I had somehow skipped over the object of my desire. Soon he, too, had to admit defeat. There were no Coco Wheats to be had. My mind was boggled...could a food item that I had taken for granted throughout my entire childhood and on into adulthood really be just a regional fad?

Since my husband was slated to return to Chicago for work, I charged him with an important responsibility: Go to "da Jewels" (Chicago-speak for visiting the grocery store) and pick up a supply of my favorite hot cereal. Here in Celebration, I live without real Chicago style pizza (Beggars Pizza in Blue Island is the best) and genuine Chicago hot dogs (Portillos is good, but JR's has them beat, with the added bonus of an Orange Julius-type drink with the explosive name "Orange Bang"). But everyone has their limits...I cannot survive without Coco Wheats!

Hubby dutifully fulfilled his task, and I descended on him like a locust, snatching the precious box from his clutches practically before I gave him a "welcome home" kiss. He also told me that he had looked up the official Coco Wheats website and discovered that it might be available at Wal-Mart. Publix is a lost cause; supposedly you can request it from the store manager, who then must order it through "Gourmet Award Foods." That seems a little complicated for a chocolate cream of wheat knock-off.

It's strange to see the things that Publix carries (or doesn't); another impossible-to-find item is good old potato dumplings. Being of Austrian/Hungarian descent, I need a fix of turkey paprikash on a fairly regular basis. (Yes, I know it's traditionally made with chicken, but hubby is allergic to chicken meat so we use the next-closest option.) Dumplings are an essential component of paprikash, and in Chicago they were readily available at the Jewel grocery store.

Here in Florida, the Publix closest to Celebration didn't carry them, but we found them at one a little farther down the road. In this area, the number of Publix stores rivals the number of Starbucks shops in the Chicago Loop...I can easily rattle off four or five located within a few miles of each other on 192. But for some unknown reason, that store abruptly quit carrying the coveted dumplings. Now all they have are some gross noodle-like things. My husband, who is the cook in our house, has had to learn to make his own out of Bisquick (just wait till I hit him up for traditional German farina dumplings!).

Oh well, even though dumplings are still a challenge, at least I have my Coco Wheats fix for now. And even though I think of it as a winter food, it sure tastes a heck of a lot better gazing out the window at swaying palm trees in the middle of December!

Ask an Expert - Visit my Virtual Office at Kasamba

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Thanksgiving Past and Christmas Future

Wasn't it just Halloween? How did Thanksgiving slip past me already? Can Christmas really be just three weeks away? 'Round about October, I think that God grabs His universal remote and plants His finger firmly down on the "fast forward button," and now here we are in the midst of the holiday season already.

It was a lovely Florida Thanksgiving; people often ask if I miss my family now that I am 1200 miles away, but in all honesty I can't say that I do. My parents passed away a long, long time ago. I have an older brother and sister, but my aunts and uncles are all gone, too, and we were never close with any cousins. I do keep in touch with my siblings, nephews, and nieces via the magic of free long distance on our cell phones, and because of the regular contact, I don't feel a compelling need to see them face to face at the holidays.

Yes, it would be nice to see them, but let's look at this realistically: Late November in Florida rarely means temperatures below the 70s or 60s. A Chicago winter can mean anything from tolerable 50s to bone-chilling single digits, and a snowstorm can blow in at any time. Which would you choose? Any family worth its salt should understand when a member prefers to stay among sunshine and palm trees instead of returning to a bleak winter wasteland.

In Florida, a majority of our friends and neighbors are in the same situation. They bailed from other parts of the country, leaving family behind, and they have no big compulsion to head back. I suspect that for many it's more than just the weather. Let's face it: Most of us don't hail from the Brady Bunch. The typical American household makes the "Married With Children" gang or the Simpsons look like a bastion of mental health. Who really wants to return to the dysfunctional family melee, especially when you have a geographic excuse to fall back on?

Thus, on Thanksgiving and Christmas, you will find many "families of choice" forming. Imagine if you could choose your own family members. Moving a thousand or so miles from home gives you a pseudo-opportunity to do so.

I prefer surrounding myself with people who put the "fun" in dysfunctional, and my Celebration social group reflects that. Here is our Thanksgiving "family portrait":

Don't we make a lovely group?! Christmas Day will be spent with friends, too, but on Christmas Eve I just had to continue the tradition that we started in 2005 and work in a dose of Disney World. I'd rather smear steak juice on my body and step into a pit of rabid wolverines than go near the theme parks on a holiday. But the resorts have plenty of wonderful dining options, so I called 407-WDW-DINE to see if there were any reservations still available.

I always wait until the eleventh hour to call for holiday reservations, so my choices are usually quite limited. Last year I lucked out and managed to get into Ohana at the virtually last minute on December 24th, but usually I can tell that the reservation agent is choking down chuckles at my insensible optimism. Still, my holiday procrastination can lead to discovery of some wonderful new restaurants. For example, calling on Valentine's Day afternoon was the way in which I discovered Ragland Road at Downtown Disney, which is now one of my favorite eateries at WDW.

For Christmas Eve, the only viable options when I called this week were California Grill and Flying Fish Cafe. I've eaten at both, although not for many years. It was a difficult choice, but I opted for California Grill because the available reservation time should allow us to see the "Wishes" fireworks right around the time that we are finishing our meal. I can't imagine a better way to spend December 24th than an exquisite fine dining experience, capped with a spectacular fireworks display before we head back to Celebration to get ready for the 11 p.m. candlelight service at Community Presbyterian Church.

I'm already prepared for a potential letdown on Christmas Day itself. How can it ever top last year, when we shared a meal of "Christmas Story"-esque Chinese food with friends and discovered a long, black hair in the Mongolian beef? And, more to the point, would I even want to top hairy Chinese food? Some legends are best left untouched. Instead, I will take the 2006 meal at face value and enjoy it on its own terms.

We've already made our annual pilgrimmage to see the Osborn lights, the Candlelight Processional, and the special ground-shaking Christmas version of Illuminations. Next up is a Disney cruise with our next-door neighbors (yes, Celebration really is a neighborly, close-knit just three years, Gee Gee and Paw Paw have gone from being an intriguing presence on the "Sold" sign next door to Duloc Manor to our pseudo-parents...I just can't wait to show them all the wonders of the Disney Magic). By the time we get home from that, we'll be in the Christmas home stretch.

It's shaping up to be another lovely holiday season in Florida. I don't miss Chicago at all, particularly since it recently got battered by an early snowstorm and plunged into a single-digit deep freeze. I suppose that I do have one regret, though, but it's a generic one: The holiday season is just too darned short! I wish that God would switch from fast forward to slow motion because there is way too much to do and so little of that precious commodity called time.

Ask an Expert - Visit my Virtual Office at Kasamba

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Truckster Joins the Family

For a while now, our automotive family has consisted of Crush (our Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, which can only be used within the confines of the Celebration bubble and which rarely exceeds 23 mph even with the hammer down) and Canyonero, the trusty Aztek that we drove down from Chicago nearly two years ago. Good old Canyonero carried hubby and I, three cats, two fish, and a bird through a freak Atlanta ice storm that turned an 18 hour drive into 24 tedious, never-ending (and sometimes hair-raising) hours.

We've managed to juggle our lives around being a one-car family, but Canyonero is nearly five years old, and I've been worried that we're entering that ugly period when a car suddenly seems to self-destruct. We still have 22,000 miles left on our extended warranty, but that doesn't help with the inconvenience of shuttling it back and forth to the shop and finding a way to get home.

Between Canyonero's age and the occasional nuisance of one person wanting to go somewhere outside of Celebration while the other has the car, we decided it was time to expand the fold. I am a rabid Aztek fan, but sadly Pontiac stopped production back in 2005. We did find a used prospect on Car Max's website, but it was sold by the time we called. Reluctantly, I accepted the fact that it was time to switch brands.

I know that many people tie their identity, and sometimes even their self esteem, into the car they drive. I am very much the opposite; a car is a necessary evil, so I only care about two things: price and side curtain air bags (in Tourist Land, I want all the protection I can possibly get). Also, my purchase of Canyonero represented my leap to the Dark Side (SUV ownership). To me, they always seemed like overkill, but one day I was tooling along in my Neon and realized that I was surrounded by giant rolling fortresses that could crush me like a bug without even noticing. Reluctantly I resolved to put myself on even footing, but I shopped on price rather than prestige.

The Aztek had the best features at the lowest price, and I realized that it had an additional advantage: It was ug-leeee! What better vehicle for a person who can't stand SUVs than the ugliest SUV possible? Nowadays the Aztek is actually pretty low on the visual pain scale, but back in '02 it was still a shocker.

So what meets the price/safety/ugliness triad in the 2007 model year? The Honda Element, of course! You have to love a toaster on wheels whose owners adopted the following motto:

We considered a few other vehicles but were leaning towards the E, so we headed off to our local dealer for a test drive. I did some preliminary price research, but nothing too heavy duty since we weren't planning to buy that night.

The salesman took us for a spin in a nice blue LX model. I noticed that all of the Elements had various combinations of overpriced dealer-installed extras, like pinstripes for $195 (nearly $200 for a stinkin' sticker?!), mudflaps, and wheel locks. I know enough from my research not to allow those items to enter into the negotiations. Dealers put them on to add to their profits or to give them more wiggle room; if they come down on something that is overpriced in the first place, it gives an uninformed consumer the erroneous idea that they are getting something valuable. I don't want those items, so if I dealer really wants to play hardball, they can either take 'em off or order me a new vehicle without them. Most of the time, if you really dig in your heels, they end up getting thrown in for free.

After the drive, I stepped inside and gave the salesman a chance to make his initial pitch. When I told him we wanted to shop around some more, he did a turnover to one of the sales managers. The manager had no idea whether we were the sort to do research, so he went through his spiel while I snickered internally. My favorite thing that he said was how the internet invoice doesn't include expenses like dealer prep, so I'd have to factor that in too. Uh, no, that is reimbursed by the manufacturer. But I didn't say anything, just nodded, listened, and formulated my opinion of how upfront they were likely to be when we entered into serious negotiations.

We departed and I got online, tearing up the keyboard to determine a fair offer. I learned about a scam that seems to be concentrated in certain states, with Florida being one of the worst offenders: the documentation charge. I imagine that dealers would take offense at the word "scam," but what else do you call charging $299 to $599, and sometimes even more, for simply doing the paperwork? That's like McDonald's tacking on a "burger assembly fee" or the local gas station assessing a "pump equipment usage charge."

In Illinois, the fee is capped around $50, and since I bought Canyonero on an employee purchase program, that was automatically waived. In Florida, a dealer must technically charge the same fee to every customer or risk a lawsuit. But a savvy buyer will make sure that an equivalent amount is deducted from the car price.

I decided that I would offer $100 over invoice, with the only acceptable additions being tax and the actual cost of the license and title. But I tossed in one more condition: a two-year extension of the bumper to bumper warranty. In Illinois, that's never been a problem since the warranty mark-up is insane, but I soon learned that Florida has some big roadblocks to that stipulation.

I was going to email a number of area dealers, but I decided to run the offer by the local dealership first. After all, they had taken the time to give us the test drive, and I like to keep my business close to home when I can. They agreed to the price, but without with the warranty. In Florida, it has to be sold at the same price to everyone, and you can't shop around for it after the purchase at out-of-state sources because the law stipulates that you can only buy it from someone in FL. Dealers must have a heck of a powerful lobby here!

They had a finance guy come out to talk to me, but all he did was yammer about how I shouldn't want a Honda-backed extended warranty anyway and how his third-party provider was better (yeah, and people thought Warranty Gold was better, too, till they went belly up). Not only that, but I noticed that he only pushed the Platinum plan, which is overkill for an Element LX. I tried to ask some questions about the Honda warranty, but he kept correcting me because he was so focused on the terms of the other plan. I'm not sure how that dog and pony show was supposed to convince me to take their deal; it would have been more effective to simply say, "We can't do that" and then make a counter offer. Since they didn't match my proposal, and didn't put anything else on the table, I decided to go home to do some more warranty research and send out my email blitz.

I soon realized that the warranty was a lost, so I focused on an out-the-door price for the car. My blitz brought in one decent offer via email ($100 less than the local dealer had offered, i.e. invoice price) and an even better offer on the phone ($225 less than invoice). I wasn't too surprised at the under-invoice quote because Honda has a 3% holdback (an additional sum of money that the dealer gets from the manufacturer in a complicated financial dance). That brings their actual cost to $600 or so below invoice, although dealers are usually quite loathe to cough any of the holdback to a buyer. Sometimes there are also factory-to-dealer incentives, although my online detective work didn't turn up any for the Element. Also, it's sometimes a matter of timing; a dealer may need to "roll a unit" to qualify for some sort of financial incentive. If they need to sell just one more car to qualify, it might behoove them to sell it at cost, or even below, to earn several thousand dollars from the manufacturer.

I really don't know what factors were behind the quotes we had received; I only knew that they looked pretty good. Since we had taken up a lot of the local dealer's time, I decided to give them a chance to match our best offer before we took our business elsewhere. I called the salesman and told him that if he could match that price, I would be in that evening to complete the purchase. He said "yes," so we shuttled off to the dealership, believing that the third time would be a charm.

The salesman was with another customer, so hubby and I poked around the lot. We weren't looking at a specific car, just any Element LX with base equipment. We had seen a couple of vehicles come and go on the lot over the past three days, and we wondered what colors were currently in stock. It looked like we were going to end up with silver; I prefer blue, but for the right price it could be Teaberry Pink or Horse Poop Brown.

Inside the dealership, I gave the salesman my notes, with a list of the quotes I had received. He asked if I had the lowest one in writing; I explained that I didn't but that I would be happy to call that dealer back and let him listen in while it was confirmed. Instead, he asked me to send copies of all my emails to one of the sales managers. I plopped down in the dealer's internet cafe and forwarded a copy of everything that I had sent out and the quotes that had come back via email.

At the salesman's desk, he pulled out an infamous four-square sheet and asked me to sign it to show my intent. I was a little puzzled because showing up for the third time should be a pretty strong sign of intent! The four-square is usually used to divert payment buyers and people with trade-ins from the numbers that the dealer doesn't want them to focus on; it's also used to make offers back and forth. That puzzled me, since I'd made it clear that I had one number; either they matched it or I'd buy from the other dealer.

As I scanned the sheet, I realized that there were no numbers at all. I told the salesman, "First. fill in the price we agreed to and all the details, and I will be happy to sign."

He said, "Okay, one minute," and disappeared. When he returned, it was suddenly impossible to do the deal unless I produced the lowest quote in writing. When I had called earlier, the salesman had asked if I had it, and I had made it quite clear that it was a phone quote. Now the terms were suddenly changing, which didn't sit too well with me.

A manager came out to tell me how the offer was probably a low-ball and I'd never get the car at that price unless the other dealership really, really needed to make another a sale regardless of the profit. He said he would still meet it if they would put it in writing, but he bent our ear about how it would practically be a loss and he'd only be doing it because it was the end of the month...blah...blah...blah. I don't really care about the reasons; all I wanted to know is would they sell me the car for that price or not.

Since he insisted on a written quote, our only option was to leave. He said to bring not only the price, but also a specific VIN number of the vehicle the other dealer would sell us. As we walked out to Canyonero, I thought, "If I go through all that trouble, why should I come back here? They've let me walk twice already, so they could easily pull the same trick again. Why not just go with the other dealer?" Sure, we liked our salesman and we'd had the test drive there, but now they had just wasted a couple hours of our precious time. If they believed that the quote was a lowball, they should have simply said on the phone, "If the deal doesn't work out, please give us a chance to match the second lowest quote."

We decided to eat out, and on the way to the restaurant, I called the low-offer dealer to see whether they would re-confirm the price. The person I had spoken with was gone for the day and wouldn't be returning till Friday. We had a nice dinner at Mimi's Cafe, and when we got home, I got a new email from yet another dealership. Coincidentally, it matched the second-lowest offer we'd gotten earlier. I fired off an email to our salesman, explaining that we appreciated his help but that we were just going to go with the low-quote dealer if they confirmed their offer because it didn't make sense to risk wasting our time again.

The next day, the local manager emailed me and also left a phone message asking me to submit the second lowest quote; he said he would let us know for sure if he would honor it. Duh! He already had that quote, since I had forwarded it right there at the dealership internet cafe at the salesman's request. Besides, why would I want the second lowest quote matched when I was reasonably confident of getting the lowest price?

I responded by reminding him that he already had the second lowest quote but that I wasn't worried about matching it because I had two other dealers who had confirmed it in writing. I explained that while I wanted to purchase locally, I was leery of being burned again. I rereiterated that we had visited his dealership fully prepared to buy a car twice; if they were serious, they could have either made a counter offer the first time (which I probably would have accepted) or offered to match our second-lowest quote if the rock-bottom deal didn't pan out. Why call and make that offer now, and worse yet, not have a definitive answer?

I hate it when a dealer feels that a customer should jump through hoops. If you think my offer is too low and don't want to be bothered, just tell me so. I'm not interested in reasons, justifications, etc. A simple "yes" or "no" will save us both time and energy. And the worst thing that you can do is make me an offer, then back down when I show up on your doorstep.

I emailed a request to the low-quote dealer (Holler Honda in Winter Park) to confirm their price in writing. On Friday, the salesman from the local dealer called, and I explained that I had responded to his manager via email and that I was now waiting for a call from the low-quoter. He said he would talk to his manager and call me back; in the meantime, Holler called me and promptly followed up with email verification. I called back our salesman to tell him that it was all a moot point now; I certainly wasn't going to give his manager another shot after being told "yes" and having it turn to "no" once already.

I said, "I'm sorry that he didn't believe me when I didn't have it in writing." The salesman kept insisting that it wasn't me they didn't believe, but rather the other dealer. I was snickering internally, remembering the old car sales motto: "Buyers are liars." No matter what they say, I think they let a foolish stereotype kibosh the sale. Perhaps they're just not used to people who present an offer up front; they're conditioned to dicker, so something in their genes prevents them from just saying "Yes" to a figure without increasing it in some way.

But thankfully not all dealers are like that. Dealing with Holler Honda turned out to be a very pleasant and painless process. I probably shouldn't even have gotten the closest dealer involved beyond the test drive; I like to support local businesses, but not when they make me waste time and actually work to give them my money!

Holler took my deposit over the phone and told me my new Element would be waiting for me on Saturday (they didn't have any in stock, so they traded with another dealer in Lakeland). Since they could get whatever color we wanted, we chose the nice midnight-blue color that we'd been favoring.

We did get a call from another dealer who offered the vehicle at $100 below Holler's price, plus a free extension of the powertrain warranty and free maintenance for a year. It was tempting, but they are out in Tampa so it wouldn't be practical to run out there for maintenance. It would have been nice to save an additional $100, but I was tired of negotiating and decided to stick with the known quantity.

On Saturday, hubby and I decided to combine the car pick-up with a stop at the spa store to replenish our supply of chemicals, since they are close to the dealer. We climbed into Canyonero and drove it off to meet its new sibling, stopping for lunch on the way.

We ate at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, reveling in the weekly specials (steak brushetta and a grilled goat cheese and crab sandwich with tomato and red pepper soup, and French cake with pears and homemade pistachio gelato for dessert). Tummies full, we tooled towards the spa store. Suddenly I looked at my husband and said, "Did you bring the check?"


Back to Duloc Manor for the check, then back to I-4 for a grueling repeat journey. Now we didn't have time for the spa stop; instead, we headed directly to Holler. We managed to get lost once we got off the expressway, but after wandering aimlessly a bit in Winter Park, we finally reached our destination.

There was a blue Element sitting right near the gate, so we gravitated to it immediately, thinking that it was Truckster. A salesman came out and greeted us by name, guessing who we were by the vehicle we had approached and the sheaf of paperwork in our hands. Turns out it wasn't Truckster, which was still getting its final detail work. He showed us the correct vehicle, and we poked around looking for any scratches, dings, or other imperfections. After all, it might manage to survive for a whole week, or perhaps even two if we're lucky, in Tourist Land before the first door smack mars its perfect blue body. It looked great; I doubt that it was even test driven much at the dealer it came from. They are 58 miles away from Holler, and it had 63 on the odometer, meaning that it only ran up 5 miles at its original home.

The salesman started our paperwork, and everything was in order. I breathed a sigh of relief; after our experience with the local dealer, I was expecting some bogus fee or other deal breaker to pop out of the woodwork. The only bump in an otherwise butter-smooth road was a long wait for the finance person. But it was Saturday evening, and the dealership was packed, so that was understandable; even if three finance people working, the customers were backed up.

To kill time, the salesman gave us an in-depth review of Truckster's features. I tried to pay attention, but I couldn't help being distracted by that intoxicating new car smell. Still, I think I managed to key into the main points, i.e. how to turn the car on and how to use the headlights and windshield wipers. Anything beyond that is gravy!

In the finance office, we were offered the usual array of extras, but we took a pass on all of them. Most are high-profit for the dealer and low-value for the consumer, although we are still considering the pre-paid maintenance plan. But I wouldn't buy any of that without considering it and running some numbers, so we declined for the time being. Also, I never buy a car without having my own financial terms worked out; if you use the dealer for financing, you open the door to all sorts of schemes. At the very least, you're likely to pay too much in interest unless the manufacturer has a special program and if you qualify for it.

The only tactic that I didn't like at Holler was having to sign a mandatory arbitration agreement, which takes away your right to sue. Granted, you don't have to sign it, but some dealers will refuse to sell you the car unless you do. I had forgotten all about those agreements; since I was sick of shopping around, I signed and crossed my fingers that we'll never have to test it. But next time, I will make "no arbitration agreement" a condition of my internet quotes.

Another stipulation that savvy shoppers often plan on their offer is to not allow the dealer to affix a sticker with their name to the vehicle. The reasoning is, why should you provide free advertising? Here in the Orlando/Kissimmee area, my reasoning is just the opposite. I want that sticker, free advertising or not. Heck, I want anything that differentiates my car from the scores of rentals on the road. If a criminal looking for someone to "bump and mug" notices Truckster was is a private vehicle, he'll probably think, "Uh oh, a local! They could have a gun, and if they do, they can blow my head off legally if I dare to threaten them! Better look for easy rental car pickin's. After all, what's a tourist going to shoot me with? Their suitcase?"

Once the papers were signed and the payment was taken care of, our salesman showed us a few last things. Then he shook our hands, and we drove our new "baby" home (well, I did; poor hubby was stuck in Canyonero...I felt bad for him sitting in the dirty, dusty workhorse car that probably reeked of my barn gear and the tomato soup I spilled last week while I was breathing Eau di Assembly Line).

I did let him drive to our "celebratory dinner" at Mimi's (yes, we go there a lot...their French Quarter burger with avocado is to die for), and on the way home he took an abrupt detour. "I'm going to be the first person to drive it on Disney property!" he announced, heading for the Osceola Parkway gate. Sigh! Pretty soon the novelty will wear off, and I'll be the primary chauffer again, so I'll enjoy it while it lasts.

After church today, we outfitted Truckster with Celebration license plate frames and a Celebration plate on the front. At the moment, it has a "barfing orange" plate on the back (if you're not sure what I mean, click here). That will change at renewal time in October, when I get to choose from Florida's ridiculousy vast selection of affinity plates. We have everything from "State of the Arts" (whatever that means) to "Imagine" (imagine what?) to "Parents Make a Difference (especially if you're raised in a dysfunctional family!). I'll probably just get "Animal Friend," which promotes spaying and neutering, as the world definitely doesn't need any more spoiled, belligerent cats like the ones that run my household.

I find myself comparing Truckster to Canyonero, and my 'Tek still comes out the winner. The main things it's missing are daylight running lights/auto-on headlights, built-in compass/thermometer, a roll-out tray, and extra electrical outlets. But the Element is the next best thing, and I do like the fact that not only do the seats come out, but you can also flip them up and "hang" them out of the way. Also, the front seats have waterproof fabric, and there is no carpeting on any of the floor surfaces, so they are easily cleanable. (There's an urban legend that you can clean an Element out with a hose, but don't believe it. Technically you can do it...but only once.)

Hopefully my Element will stick out here in Celebration, the Land of Extremes (sometimes I feel like I'm surrouned by Hummers and Minis, with not much inbetween). I am ordering a decal for Truckster that I think will sum up its role here in our town quite well:

Overall, I'm pleased with Truckster. Sure, it's not an Aztek, but it's a pretty reasonable facsimile. I'm proud of my toaster on wheels and proud to echo the slogan of Element afficianados everywhere: "The Element...screw aerodynamics!!"

Ask an Expert - Visit my Virtual Office at Kasamba