Thursday, September 27, 2007

Save Money When Buying a Car

Dumb Little Man recently featured a great video of Rob Gruhi explaining how to negotiate the best price for a car. His advice is specific to new cars, but most of the principals apply to used cars as well.

Here are some of my thoughts on buying a used car, based on my recent experience:
  • Rob is correct that most of the time you won't get the best deal on a trade in. Still, you may wish to ask. The dealer might be more willing to give you a high trade-in value rather than a low purchase price. Also, a trade in can lower your sales tax.
  • CarMax can give your trade-in a free appraisal. I think their business model is basically to give low appraisals and high purchase prices, but I've heard the occasional person gets lucky. Still, the appraisal can give you a more objective view of the car's condition for pricing using Bluebook or Edmunds. If you do get a good price, they will buy the car even if you don't buy one from them. The process took me about an hour. The appraisal I got was thousands too low -- I sold the car for 27% more.
  • Like Rob says, the "off the lot price" is key. Never let the dealer talk about another price.
  • To reinforce Rob: don't buy the first time you visit/call/email the dealer. You want to give the impression that the car fits your needs, but that you have plenty of other choices available. Ask for their best "off the lot price", tell them that it's too much, leave.
  • Don't feel like a jerk. The sales guys want you feel bad for not buying a car. They'll act like you're the first person not to buy a car at full asking price. Don't fall for it. I called and bugged one sales guy to lower the price until he told me that he wouldn't talk to me anymore. In retrospect, I think this was just a gambit -- I should have kept pressing.
  • Sales guys also like to build pressure on you by doing favors. They're just doing their job. "I talked to Bob, the sales manager for you." Trust me, he wasn't representing you. They were probably joking about how they would spend your money.
  • Say no to extended warranties, even if you want one. I told the guy that I wasn't interested in the warranty and he immediately cut its price almost in half. I still didn't buy it.
  • As you find cars that meet your needs put them in a spreadsheet. I tracked these columns: make, model, year, mileage, warranty (does it have a factory warranty?), date I first found it (so I know how long it has been on the market), blue book value, and a list of prices as they change in time. I log the price I get to for each interaction with the seller. If you build data over a month, it will help you identify good candidates for a bargain.
  • If there are lots of cars of a type on the market, point it out to the seller. My father once carried a giant flapping stack of Autotrader printouts to show off. It worked.
  • Just because the bluebook (or whatever) gives a certain price doesn't mean that you couldn't do better. Those values are averages. Think of a bell curve -- you want to be on the edge, not the middle. I paid thousands below book value on my last car.
  • Some dealers seem to intentionally do a poor job of responding to requests for bids by email. Often they will just repeat the ad or ask you to call. Usually I get the data I want when I reply and repeat my request. Don't be afraid to call and ask for the "internet manager" either.
  • Look for used cars on dealer websites, not just Craigslist, Autotrader, and your newspapers. Especially look for luxury cars being sold by non-luxury dealers. Likewise, look for ordinary cars for sale at luxury dealers. A friend once got a great deal on an Audi that had been sitting ignored for months on a Kia lot.
  • Don't let the dealer try to steer you towards a cheaper vehicle when you make a low offer. Be firm. The dealer will act like you're crazy for thinking you can get "that much car" for less than asking price. This could be a good point for showing off your stack of printouts.
Link.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Camera Map Hack

I often feel like an idiot when I have to consult a map while standing on a street corner. Now -- thanks to technology -- I only feel like a nerd.

Instead of printing out my Google maps and directions, I take a quick photo of my computer screen using my digital camera. I could take a screen shot and copy the image file onto my camera -- but a quick snap of the screen is faster and works fine.

When I need to consult my map or directions, I put my camera into playback mode and use the controls to zoom in on the relevant area. Instead of looking lost, I probably look like some sort of camera dork.

Clearly this isn't a good solution if you're driving: please let your passenger do the navigation. Otherwise the camera map hack is a fine way to save some ink and paper.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Joel is a Funny Guy

"And Paul Graham gives them another 6000 boxes of instant noodles to eat, so they stay in business another three years..."
Link

Monday, September 17, 2007

How Making Appointments With Yourself Can Help You Get More Out Of Your Day

I have a confession to make. I'm not very good at keeping a to-do list. In fact I don't really even keep one. To-do lists make me feel bad. Terrible even. When I sit down and see all the tasks that I've been neglecting, I want to run away and join the circus. Witnessing the sheer magnitude of all the things I should and could do stresses me out.

The problem starts with the three or four urgent and important items I always have. No matter what, I always seem to have 3 or 4 of them. When I finish one, I inevitably pick up another task to replace it. The remaining tasks either aren't important or aren't urgent. Items that aren't important I can ignore -- thankfully. But I can't ignore the important but non-urgent.

Those important but not urgent items are trouble. With or without a to-do list, these are the tasks that never seem to get done. Those items -- the sea of important but non-urgent -- build quickly and stick around because the urgent problems get all the attention. When these tasks do get finished it is often by virtue of getting moved to the urgent category. Not pleasant.

Training is my classic example of a important but not urgent task. I want to spend a little time every day learning new skills. This training isn't urgent. I could skip a session on any given day without consequence. Unfortunately, urgent tasks pressure me to skip almost every day. Even if I did manage a big to-do list, this would probably happen naturally as I prioritize my tasks. Urgent items are very compelling -- by definition, the other tasks can wait.

How To Get Tasks Done Without Making To-do Lists

So what is my solution? I schedule non-urgent tasks in my calendar. I just pick a date and time and schedule the task just like I would a meeting. What used to be a big scary list is now spread out across the calendar in bite-sized chunks. As a bonus, if you also schedule your urgent + important items, you can use the calendar to have very fine control over how much time you spend daily on each task.

Does it seem odd to schedule time for tasks that are not urgent? You might say that by scheduling the tasks you're making them artificially urgent. When your calendar reminds you to do a task, suddenly it's urgent -- but just for the scheduled time. Although the task wasn't urgent before, you must act like it is when the scheduled time arrives. This artificial urgency is the whole point. If your task never becomes urgent, you may never complete it.

By making an appointment with myself, I force myself to actually make time. Urgent items get put off for a moment while other important tasks get addressed. This makes it a lot easier to justify spending time on myself - I can build the balance between different projects, between work and life right into the calendar. The calendar becomes the plan.

Potential Issues:

This method of tracking tasks has some limitations. First, it requires that you actually obey the calendar. If you often ignore or miss appointment notifications, this probably won't work for you. Similarly, if your daily schedule isn't somewhat predictable, you may end up with tasks schedule when you can't possibly work on them.

Another issue is that you need to be around the computer so you can get notifications. There are some possible workarounds: Google Calendar for instance can SMS reminders to your mobile phone. Some PDAs, cell phones, and iPods can synchronize with your main calendar.

If your work depends a lot on mental focus, this type of scheduling may be harmful. Lots of interruptions from the calendar can prevent you from getting in "the zone". In this case, you'll want to block off significant chunks of uninterrupted time.

Finally, the task of managing a calendar can eat up a lot of time. Depending on what software you use, finding tasks and rescheduling them can be painful. I personally enjoy Google Calendar because I can schedule tasks with one click and a plain English sentence: "Read GTD at 7pm", and search quickly too. On the down side, you need internet access to use it.

Final Notes:

This is just an idea that I have been fooling around with for the past few weeks. Over the long term there may be issues I haven't seen.

For more of this sort of thing, try David Allen of Getting Things Done fame, or Merlin Mann of 43 Folders. They are more or less my source of inspiration. Otherwise, let me know what you think. When you have time.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Thank You, I Don't Care

Occasionally computers just beg for me to smash their monitors. One laptop in particular tempts me to split it over my knee. The guilty laptop has the misfortune of running Windows XP. On top of this outrage, IT manages it.

What drives me crazy are the little cartoon alert balloons that periodically pop out of the task bar to bother me. "A network connection was lost." "A troublesome USB device is still troublesome." "A new program is available." IT installs a new virus patch or spam filter and suddenly it becomes OS priority #1 to convince me to run it. Thank you, I don't care.

Why must windows behave like some dumb sidekick? "Golly Mr. Holmes, you just installed a new text editor so you can write programs." Thanks Watson, get lost. Who is he narrating to? I think most people know what installing a program does.

That might sound picky of me to complain about the stupid cartoon bubbles. But here is the thing: it distracts me. When I'm focused on some knotty engineering problem, distraction is enemy numero uno. No, I don't care that a USB device is working just fine. Now it will take me 15 minutes to get back into the zone.

And don't get me started about the few cases where I manage to ignore the bubble. Eventually I get to a good stopping point and it fades just as I start to read the message. What if this message was actually important? "Your building is on fire. Escape while you can!" I guess I'm doomed since I don't know how I can check on messages I missed.

So yeah. I know that I'm not the first person to complain about this (there are ways to stop the balloons), but here is my suggested fix for all the operating systems out there that want to alert me to issues that aren't urgent. Put it in my email inbox.

Why? First, my email client already has filtering and search capabilities built in. No need to reinvent the wheel for that. Second, I expect worthless messages to appear in my inbox. I would feel good knowing that all my annoying correspondence lands in the same place. I'm prepared to handle the situation when I find useless stuff in my email: I delete it.

When I'm working neck-deep in a complicated bit of code, I'm not prepared to deal with a lost network connection. It happens all the time in Windows, I'm not surprised, and I don't particularly care. Send it to my email. My filter will arrange to forward the message to Steve Ballmer. Or in this case you'll have to send the mail when ten seconds later you find the network again. Please don't cover my workspace with silly messages.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Choosing an Occupation

Most folks I know have had some trouble deciding what they want to be when they grow up. The technique of contemplating what you would do if you had a million dollars (as seen in Office Space) doesn't seem to help much. Instead, it makes you dream of all the ridiculous stuff you could buy.

I can't promise that it will work better, but I stumbled on another way to address the same problem. Ask yourself: what have you enjoyed helping other people do?

I think this attacks the problem more sensibly because it fits better with the purpose of an occupation. People pay other people money because they benefit or expect to benefit in some way. Imagining a million dollars doesn't seem practical, it doesn't require you to consider something that another person would find useful.

Thinking about how you have helped someone also encourages you to think about activities you have already performed. You are much more likely to understand how something makes you feel if you have actually performed the task. The question also indicates a sensible way of exploring occupational possibilities: helping other folks do their job or solve a problem.

Will this work? I don't know. Try it and let me know.