Friday, July 31, 2009

Our top 10 consumer complaints, plus one from the watchdogs

The good news - none of the minor consumer hassles I've had recently are among the horror stories in the Consumer Federation of America's latest list of top 10 consumer complaints for 2008.

The bad news...while complaints are up - thanks to recession-fueled jumps in beefs about debt collectors, bogus loan and job opportunity scams, and sudden business closings - resources to help consumers are down.

Sixty two percent of the public agencies that helped CFA pull together its annual list reported complaints were on the increase, said Susan Grant, the federation's consumer protection director. Forty seven percent of the same agencies also reported budget cuts.

"It's ironic that at the same time more people are asking state and local consumer agencies for help, their budgets are shrinking," said Grant.

Hassles over cars, home repairs and credit again generated the most complaints that consumers filed last year. Gripes about cable and utility companies, retailers and retail service providers, both online and in real life, and landlord/tenant problems also put in their perennial appearances. Complaints about misleading health products and services made the list too. They didn't last year.

The federation's suggested best defenses against potential ripoffs looks familiar too. Check the Better Business Bureau or online complaint forums for potential problems. (But don't believe everything you find. BBB reports often seem bland and earth-scorching online forums don't have time or resources to separate legitimate complaints from screaming rants.) Look deeper and wider if something smells. Get terms in writing and don't pay all your money upfront.

And if you still have problems, here are some places that might be able to help.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Beer and profiling outside the White House too

Trying to settle a beef over a public beer has got to be tough. White House watchers were snarking because nobody bought American. That changed at the last minute, though. I don't think that's a big deal in a global economy, but then I drive a Subaru built in Indiana.

What's more interesting is what happens if President Obama, Professor Gates or Sergeant Crowley were to pay any part of the tab with plastic. Someone's credit rating could take a hit.

Alcohol, it appears, seems to be one thing on a growing list of purchases that credit card company gnomes are watching these days for warnings that we might flee to Tahiti with the remaining uncharged $13.29 or whatever on our credit card limits.

They watch what you buy, where you buy it and, increasingly, whether you buy enough. If they don't like what they see, they cut your credit and you get closer to being caught in a credit jam.

The gnomes like to think of this analysis as data mining, which they can do to help provide credit more efficiently and profitably. But as's Connie Prater reported recently, critics say it is a lot like redlining too. To some, such mining seems a long way from the five basic credit habits that Fair Isaac Co. bases its FICO scores on.

So how do you protect yourself? Use all your cards regularly, but sparingly. Pay off your balances each month. And pay cash for stuff you don't want the gnomes, or your significant other, to know about.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Gimme shelter ... and maybe tax credits up front?

Auto industry forecasters are starting to sound almost giddy about cash for clunkers. Some predict that an estimated 16,000 sales in the few-days-old plan may push July's annual sales rates into 10-million unit territory.

Now some real estate executives are urging ramping up the current potential $8,000 tax credit so that first-time homebuyers can come up with more scratch for shelter. A $4,500 tax break on a median price $28,000 auto works out to a 16 percent subsidy for car buyers. An $8,000 tax credit on a median $198,000 home only equals four percent.

Fair's fair, say proponents of expanding the credit. But raising it to even $15,000 might seem greedy, worries National Association of Realtors President Charles McMillan. They likely will talk amongst themselves for a while.

There is another approach to consider. First-time buyers in 14 states, including Missouri, but not Kansas, can use bridge loans from state housing commissions to collect the $8,000 credit now, in time to increase their down payments. Mechanically, it works like tax refund loans that consumer advocates gripe about.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said a couple months ago that his agency was exploring a national expansion of the program. Officials will be racing the calendar though. Depending on where you live, you may need to buy by mid-October to complete all the necessary paperwork in time to close before the Dec. 1 tax credit deadline.

I think that raises another question. Will HUD overhaul national lending rules for what effectively would be a 10-week or shorter lending window? Or will there be an expanded Scratch for Shelter plan to buy garage space for clunker replacements?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Consumer confidence fell...that's a surprise?

We splurged on dinner last night. $5.35 for the two of us from a value meal menu down the street. It was hot. We were tired.

And we apparently were not alone. An unexpected drop in consumer confidence rattled the financial markets Tuesday. Confidence had fallen flatter than bird splat, but some forecasters thought improved home sales and more chattering about the end of the recession would perk up our spirits and spending.

It might have once. But as CNN's Paul R. La Monica points out, look at what we do, not what we say. And what we're doing, by several accounts, is cutting our spending as much as we can and looking for ways to cut more. If we as consumers are still going to be driving 67 percent of the economy, that will have consequences.

Restaurants, for example, are being hit harder than anytime in the last 28 years, researchers at NPD Group, a major consultant to several industries. Convenience Store News finds we're spending more of that money on value menu items and private label products.

Deep thinkers still wonder if such shifts are short-lived reactions or signs of a bigger change.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Exorcising a money leak

We've got a ghost flusher. An older flapper valve on one of our toilets began leaking over the weekend, draining enough water to partly flush it every three or four hours.

It's an easy fix. The valves wear out every four or five years. We've repaired them often enough that I'm confident it won't turn out like scenes from a World War II U-boat movie. I've also learned to call in professionals when I think things might get tricky.

But is it worth it? EPA estimates that a leaky toilet can waste as much as 200 gallons of water a day. A quick peek at our latest water bill and some back-of-the-envelope calculations show we pay the water company about three-tenths of a cent per gallon. So the leak costs us about 60 cents a day.

New parts run $5.69 at the hardware store. Stopping the leak,we recoup that investment in about nine and half days. I haven't run a similar check yet on the new eco-friendly toilets that people are recommending. Some of those cost more than the first car I bought. In this economy, it's easier to keep the old stuff working longer

Friday, July 24, 2009

Beyond credit reports...our darkest secrets revealed

You remember that overdue library book in fifth grade. Does your potential employer know? Here's how to find out.

Most of us know about our right to look at free copies of our credit history and correct any mistakes lenders might find there. But the same Fair Credit Reporting Act that guarantees that right also requires other consumer reporting agencies to similarly show you their records of your insurance history, banking records, residential history, motor vehicles and other titled property you've owned and criminal past, if you have even a hint of one.

Employers look at this stuff. So if you are among the more than 10 percent of us for whom filling out job applications is becoming a job itself, you might want to pull your own records to see what they see. As with credit reports, you get one free copy a year, and more if you are rejected for a job, loan or something else because of information on the reports.

LexisNexis ChoicePoint is a good place to start. It provides a whole slab of personal information about you, based on public records plus the information you authorized when you clicked an ''agree to terms" box sometime in your life. LexisNexis also compiles what it calls Accurint reports that dig beyond obvious public records into more detail about where you live and what you own.

ChexSystems at drills into your banking history to look for blemishes.
And finally, there is the Insurance Services Office, which tracks your insurance claims history for the last seven years.

Start sooner rather than later if you want to review these records. Many providers send reports by traditional mail only, which may take anywhere between two and eight weeks to reach you.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

HAL from 2001 is my new insurance agent

Okay, not really, but I thought of the malevolent computer from the science fiction classic 2001 when I tried renewing the insurance on Ms. Ktnomics' Vespa earlier. It may be quicker mailing in the $23 than resetting my password on the insurance company's site.

It also reminded me we've all been seeing a lot more commercials recently for online auto insurance providers stressing their really low premium costs. Recently about one in five new auto insurance sales has taken place entirely on the Internet, according to, the nation's premier tallier of everything automotive.

Online seller Progressive Direct is the 7th biggest carrier in Kansas and 11th largest in Missouri, though giants State Farm, Allstate, Geico and Farm Bureau have more than half the market in both states. The big companies work the web too, but in coordination with brick and mortar stores that online providers like eSurance and Insurance 21 shun entirely.

Someone is selling enough low cost, no frills auto insurance to help pull premium costs down from levels earlier this year, though we are still paying more than a year ago. How good is it? As always, it depends on the specific company. Asking your friends and checking complaint reports filed with regulators is still a good move.

And while you are driving, watch out for drivers who are trying super hard - and illegally - to save money. Maybe one driver in six currently on the road might be driving without a license, the Insurance Research Council estimates.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cashless clunker buyers prepare to fight back

Uncle Sam's cash for clunkers program officially kicks in later this week, but you can test drive some deals now. Two different things are happening that make comparison shopping a lot more interesting than it was just a few weeks ago.

First, those remarkably nimble marketers at Hyundai are already offering clunker cash along with $1.49 a gallon gas and other incentives. The South Korean auto giant has been fronting dealers money for almost a month to spur market share. It's working, The New York Times and trade press report. Other automakers are waiting to make sure how they'll get money back from the program. Meantime, Chrysler said it is doubling the government offer on some of its cars.

Second, Detroit, which still is surfing a tsumami of foreign competitors on various best buy lists, appears to have some additional new competition., among others, reports that bankruptcy-jilted Chrysler and -General Motors dealers now selling used cars as independents, will be working to snap up their share of pent-up consumer demand.

So for consumers, we're back to square one in the buy-new-or-used-debate. Do we go with new car perks and incentives or money saving, depreciation adjusted, used car values? The rules haven't changed. The numbers might. Gentlemen, start your calculators.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Oh, crap. Retirement looms

Ever notice how many of the kids in your high school yearbook have goofy haircuts?

I thought of that recently when I ran across a 10-year-old AARP survey of what I and my fellow first-wave baby boomers expected retirement to be like. It's a hoot. Eight in 10 of us planned to work, at least part time, after we hit 65 just to keep active and perhaps to provide breaks between some serious recreational plans.

Reality is different, of course. First, growing numbers are being pushed into retirement sooner than we planned, the Employee Benefits Research Institute recently reported. Second, many of us aren't financially ready for that shock. Our savings rates, until recently, have been abysmal. And a $6 trillion housing market meltdown threatens to leave many first wave boomers with little more than Social Security and Medicare to get by on, the Center for Economic and Policy Research calculates.

So, chances are many of us will try staying in the workforce longer, but not for the reasons we told AARP back in 1999. More of us than we imagined will be trying to pay off credit cards that we haven't yet maxed out, say pollsters at Securian Financial Group.

I already posted a few months ago how this changed the way I'm handling some of my own plans for retirement income. Now, The Motley Fool's Robert Brokamp, posting on the Get Rich Slowly site, finds that this situation may be changing the whole notion of retirement. But we've heard that before too. And the future didn't work out the way Merrill Lynch expected either.

I wonder if our haircuts now will look funny maybe 20 years from now.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Reverse mortgages -- strangling on a life line

Like many of us, I sometimes thought about using a reverse mortgage as a backs-to-the-wall post-recession defense against old age poverty. Then I did the math. Stockpiling cat food is more appealing.

That won't be true for everyone, of course. Reverse mortgages can be nifty way for homeowners who are 62 or older to pull equity out of their homes to meet living expenses. How nifty depends on their ages, the value of their homes and what other choices they have to meet their income needs. Those are different for each of us. AARP has a handy calculator to help you run your own numbers.

But if you are a 63-year-old thinking of pulling, say, $190,000 out of a modest suburban home, the numbers are not pretty. After you lop out closing costs, mortgage insurance and other fees - which can be hefty, as critics warn - what's left is either a lump sum or credit line somewhere between $55,700 and $84,920 or a monthly payment between $417 to $524. The difference depends on whether you go with a fixed rate or variable loan.

The money is tax free, which is good. But where I live the low end of my potential monthly payout barely covers property taxes and upkeep needed to get the loan in the first place. And pulling money out of your house might complicate your eligibility for Medicaid or other programs that might be more valuable.

Those are just some of many questions you need to think through before considering such a loan. Bottom line - using our homes as ATM machines didn't work out before. We don't want to get stuck in a similar jam again.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chump change from the credit card companies.

Our credit card cash-back earnings hit 63 cents this week. I expected rewards to go down as lenders and borrowers brace for new credit card regulations to kick in a few months from now. But 63 cents barely gets you change back from a senior-price cup of coffee. Sheesh.

Actually, there's more than the new credit card regulations going on here. We consumers are becoming more frugal, whether by choice, as Harris pollsters recently found, or because we have to, as the Federal Reserve reports.

Banks and credit card companies are scrambling to save as many billions of potentially lost dollars as they can before the full changes kick in, writes David Lazarus of The Los Angeles Times. So watch your mail the next several weeks for big changes and small ones that are in the works.

And start planning now how you might change some credit card habits as the new rules start kicking in. Many of our first impulses may actually make things worse, says John Ulzheimer of What you may want to do instead is diversify your credit card usage, adds Mark Huffman of

But don't go nuts, advises CNN Money. As always, you want to keep a healthy distance between the amount of credit you use and the amount that is available but which you don't use.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cars that no one wants are worth buying

OK, maybe not Hummers so much. Gas prices are still dodgy. And I don't get warm and fuzzy about anything that reminds me of riding in Army trucks.

But analysts at Consumer Reports and elsewhere are arguing that the auto brands that General Motors and Chrysler are tossing into their financial scrap yards are good deals for anyone who wants to buy a new car and keep it.

We've been through this before, as Bankrate Monitor's five years ago elegy for Oldsmobile buyers reminds us. Someone will be around to provide parts and service, though some warranty work might require driving farther.

The killer for many car buyers is resale value. It drops like stone when dealers start ripping auto names off their walls, report services such as or Kelley Blue Book.

You can make that work for you, say observers such as Sylvia Cochran at Associated Content. Buy cheap now because dealers are really motivated to move discontinued models. Realize you won't get squat for a trade-in. Drive it until the wheels come off.

The analysts don't say so, but I can see one big challenge to preplanning a future clunker. That's selling the idea of a fuel-sipping Saturn to a 16-year-old new driver in your house. Guaranteed eye-rolling, no matter how you pitch it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tres chic, tres cheap

Here's another head-scratcher from the recession front. Better stuff is showing up in second-hand and thrift stores these days. Some shoppers complain it's getting pricey.

Ms. Ktnomics and I checked out some familiar stores and a couple new ones this weekend. It was too hot and wet outside to garden or tackle some house painting I need to get to. We saw a $6.99 designer sports jacket that looks a lot better than a no-name I need to replace, a virtually new Brooks Brothers suit for under $10 and whole lot of other stuff for $5 and under that we would have snapped up not long ago. But not now. We also saw stuff priced for almost what department stores charge on closeouts.

Time magazine, among others, has been tracking many changes that thrift and the recession are bringing to retailers. Suburban malls that once lusted after names such as Saks or Macy's now hail organizations like Savers or Maj-R Thrift instead.

Shopping second hand is a bit different than hitting the mall used to be, though I don't agree with some of the advice Reader's Digest recently published. It suggests focusing on stores in nice neighborhoods. I usually have better luck looking for relative clusters of stores and going with first impressions among the choices there. Shopping second hand stores also is a lot like going to farm or household auctions when I was a kid. Some days you see bargains and some days you simply need to wait until another time.

Two things have changed. The Internet makes it a lot easier to find both for-profit resellers and non-profit resale centers. Unfortunately, the same wired-technology also makes it easier for lenders to see where you shop if you use plastic. Some reportedly get antsy if suddenly words such as Salvation and Army pop up. So pay cash. It's also a good way rein in impulse spending if you stumble into a bargain bonanza.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Nail down your income tax refund now

Now is a good time to tweak how much money comes out of your paycheck for taxes in order to be surer of getting the refund you want, tax pros say.

With almost half the 2009 tax year still ahead for most of us, increasing our withholding just a few dollars now will help assure a bigger refund later if we want that. It also is a good time to have a bit less taken out to improve cash flow now if you are willing to settle for a minimal refund later.

There's a catch, of course. To make the change, you need to file a new Form W-4 Employers Withholding Certificate with your company's payroll people. Research shows most of us know we can and, from time to time, should do this, but almost none of us ever do that, says Jackie Perlman, a Tax Institute research analyst at H&R Block.

We probably know why too. The simple two-page form - one page of instructions and one with a few blanks to fill in - can be a little intimidating for anyone who doesn't deal with it often. Knowing that the IRS will provide a free 24-page booklet of supplemental instructions in Publication 919 doesn't make you think it gets easier.

There are faster ways to cut through the clutter, Perlman said.

"Start by figuring how large a refund you want," she said.

It can be larger than what you got back last time, smaller, or the same. It doesn't matter which. Each of us has our own good reasons for choosing any of those three. The point is, it is a target and you can manipulate your paycheck withholding to hit it.

Next, don't confuse exemptions - which are those $3,500 dollops of tax exempt income you, your married partner and the kids get every April just for being there - with withholding allowances, which are what you claim on the W-4. Withholding allowances are basically accounting guidelines that IRS and your payroll department work out to help calculate your take-home pay.

Most W-4 calculations start out based on one withholding allowance for each exemption you claim, but you can bump those allowances up or down to fit your circumstances. In fact, you probably should, especially if you or your married partner's incomes have changed recently, because some of the IRS formulas are easily knocked out of whack when life happens, researchers report.

There is an easy way to adjust your calculations for that too, Perlman said. Go online and plug your numbers into one of the good online withholding calculators that tax professionals and others offer for free. Those will ask questions designed to help you get handles on all the tax issues that may affect your refund. Maybe you'll qualify for a homebuyers or energy conservation credit, for example, which could help reduce what you need to withhold now.

Perlman, not surprisingly perhaps, said she's partial to an H&R Block calculator on the bottom half of this page. There's a similar calculator next to it for self employed people facing similar issues.

IRS also provides similar calculators at its site that get high marks from users. Just Googling for withholding calculators fetches up fistfuls others such as this one.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Who are the worst drivers?

Yikes. Roughly three fourths of the nation's drivers are worse than the ones who headed to work this morning on Kansas City area roadways, according to a new report from Allstate.

The Northbrooke, Ill. insurance giant's fifth annual Safest Drivers surveys ranks Kansas City and selected suburbs in the top fourth of 200 cities and suburbs where it studies a rolling two years worth of accident statistics. Sioux Falls, SD came up as the safest place to drive; Washington, DC came in the worst. Wrong kind of gridlock, I suppose.

We all have our own nominees for the nation's worse drivers. Cable TV is even thinking of making a reality show based on them. GMAC pollsters look at how much we know about rules of the road and puts Wisconsin on top, New York at the bottom. Don't get cocky, though. The auto lender also estimates one in five of us, or 41 million drivers, would flunk a basic road rules test if it were a pop quiz now.

Authorities are divided over why some groups of drivers are worse than others. Where you drive makes a difference. That's why car insurance rates can vary a lot by zip codes. Some focus on age as a factor, though it seems a tossup whether very young drivers or very old ones are most at risk.

One Toronto outfit even looked, tongue in cheek, at zodiac signs. No word yet on whether traffic stops are planned to take offending Libras off the road.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tax audits - the midyear tax review you don't want

Uh, oh. H&R Block is beefing up its plans to help clients with income tax audits. The world's largest tax service calculates that our individual chances of being double-checked have roughly doubled, to one in return in 99 from one in 202 previously.

That's not a surprise. New IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman has been warning for months that service will be getting more adamant about collecting an estimated $345 billion in taxes we may have fudged on. Now, twin plans to increase compliance and step up enforcement are the twin top priorities for IRS' 2019-2013 strategic plan.

We don't know yet how much pain stepped-up enforcement may cause. Negligence messes up most tax returns, Alvin Brown, a former high ranking IRS attorney told Congress a few years ago. Those mistakes are usually easier to fix than intentional cheating attempts. But either way, Brown already lists a wide array of potential audit magnets on his Web site.

IRS has some pretty explicit procedures for both its agents and audited taxpayers to follow. You need to know them, both to get through the audit as successfully as possible and, increasingly, to avoid phishing and other scams that are expected to perk up as enforcement revs up.

National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson vows to step up her office's efforts to make IRS more accessible to taxpayers in order to help reduce unintended abuses. Reconciling the need to collect what taxpayers really owe with the increasing difficulty that many have with everyday bills will be one of the service's biggest challenges this year, Olson predicts.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Hunting and gathering, recession style

We bought two $1.59 packages of hot dogs on sale for 97 cents this weekend, but got an even better deal. We used a manufacturer's coupon that knocked $1 off the purchase price of the two packages as well.

Ms. Ktnomics and I have always been coupon clippers. At first we had to, in order to stretch the princely $150a month that the U.S. Army paid back when. We continued because it became fun on those semi-frequent times when the subsequent savings were larger than what we paid the checkout clerk. Now, we're flirting with have to again.

So apparently is more of America, reports Anna Vander Broek at Coupon redemptions, which it a 2.6 billion milestone last year, are running between 17 percent and 50 percent ahead of a year ago, depending on whose data base you check. KFC has even become the target of a class action suit filed on behalf of disappointed consumers who weren't able to redeem Oprah coupons for free chicken recently.

Most of us use traditional strategies for piling up coupon savings. We look for offers on stuff we buy anyway and clip them either from papers, magazines or online sources. Then we wait for sales on the stuff we want to buy with them to make our money go as far as possible. Sometime we wait a while. I've got fistfuls of old no-expiration-date Wheaties coupons celebrating Mary Lou Retton's Olympic success.

Some of us go further, which alarms the industry when fraud is involved. The industry-funded nonprofit watchdog Coupon Information Corp. reports there were only two coupon fraud cases prosecuted in the U.S. between 1986 and 2001. There have been maybe 93 in the last 18 months now that the stakes are higher and higher-quality and vastly more affordable computer printers are available.

Authorities don't know how much money coupon scammers actually make. But they allege that one group, indicted in a recent major bust in Milwaukee, stole at least $250 million in the last decade. So bear with me if you're behind me in at the checkout and I'm trying to convince a kid at the register that my 25-year-old Mary Lou Retton coupon with no bar codes is legit. It may take a few minutes.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Here's a sneak peek at your next income tax form

Ford Motor Co. redesigned its Model T pickup trucks a lot between 1925 and 1927. In the end, the newer ones looked a lot like the older ones.

Same way with the IRS, which recently asked for public comment on its proposed new Form 1040 income tax form, pictured here. It looks remarkably like the 2008 version, pictured here. Mostly, some of the numbers, for standard deductions and the like, have been adjusted for inflation.

Some of your calculations may be way different, though, because of all the economic stimulus changes that are kicking in. You should eyeball your tax situation, and specifically check what's being withheld from your pay stubs against the taxes you paid in 2008, to see if you are on track toward where you want to be at filing time.

And if numbers aren't your thing, try this.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The founding fathers cut deals too

Money mavens love our nation's founding fathers.

Many, such as J.D. Roth over at Get Rich Slowly, are particularly fond of Benjamin Franklin. He was pithy, to the point, and always quotable. But as Kiplinger's Tina Korbe writes, many of our most revered 18th century icons have offered advice about handling personal finances that still holds up more than two centuries later.

There is one financial founding father we don't hear as much about. William Duer, a delegate to the Continental Congress and an assistant to the nation's first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, became a financial speculator who ripped off investors so spectacularly in 1792 that Hamilton had to step in, like Tim Geithner today, to stop an economic panic. It was the most aggressive intervention of its kind until modern markets tanked in 1987.

Playing financially fast and loose happened a lot in 18th and 19th century America. George Washington, in addition to his many other accomplishments, was a legendary land speculator. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and fistfuls of less well known historical icons dabbled too.

Many of the schemes failed. Ironically, some of the suddenly worthless shares in those failed enterprises are worth hundreds or thousands of dollars as collectors items now because some of the same promoters also signed the Declaration of Independence and other bits of our historical DNA.

Duer died in debtor's prison in 1799, leaving a legacy that remains with us today. When traders and investors stung by the schemes met under a buttonwood tree near what now is 68 Wall Street to organize what became the New York Stock Exchange, they laid down ground rules to curb insider trading and other abuses specifically inspired by Duer's career. We're still following those rules, some days more successfully than others, Right, Mr. Madoff?

Happy Independence Day, everyone

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cash for clunkers - you can't just go in and kick the tires

Unloading that beat-up late '90s Ford Explorer or other gas guzzler in the government's new Cash for Clunkers program may be a lot easier if you have a calculator, Internet access and a flexible schedule.

Basic rules are already posted on the program's official Web site. But some auto industry analysts say waiting until about July 23 might get you the best deal. That's the the National Highway Traffic Administration's deadline for coming up with detailed rules spelling out how auto dealers get paid for fronting us $3,500 to $4,500 and making sure our clunkers actually make it to the scrap yard and not some underground resale market. Some dealers may be more cautious until they know those details

But you may not want to wait too long either. The program is scheduled to end Nov. 1 or sooner if buyers hit a 250,000 sales limit set by federal spending caps.

Meantime, Detroit, its competitors and camp followers are revving up some sales pitches now. General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai already have added Cash for Clunkers sections to their Web sites. Other auto makers and related outfits such as finance companies seem likely to follow.

Financing the new fuel-sipper you buy with your clunker cash gets interesting too.

Lenders to auto buyers are just as antsy about loan quality as home lenders. According to some indicators, it takes maybe a 720 to 760 point credit score now to get the same comfortable interest rates that a 600 to 700 point score fetched six months ago.

700 points is going to be stretch for a bunch of us with foreshortened income prospects. Outfits such as, which collects loan applications online and coordinates them with payday and other lenders, offer to seek loans for borrowers with scores ranging as low as the upper 400 to low 500 range. Rates depend on the lender who agrees to actually make the loan, but won't be cheap. Or you may need a co-signer.