When sellers try to help: Good deal or cynical ploy?

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Job insecurity and low consumer confidence has some retailers, car companies and home builders getting creative in their efforts to bring buyers off the sidelines: Hyundai will let you return your new car if you lose your job and can't make the payments. Keller Williams is experimenting with a plan to provide payment assistance to buyers who lose their jobs within six months of closing. Now a Seattle real estate developer is offering mortgage assistance to condo buyers who subsequently lose their jobs -- and getting some good press for it too.

These all sound like good deals, but consumers should be cautious: They're mostly gimmicks. The only reason that companies offer promotions is to move inventory. The Thornton Place condominium complex has had 109 units on the market since the summer, and hasn't been able to sell a single one. The market's saying that the prices are far too high, but instead of being realistic, the developers are trying to generate headlines with a promotion that will benefit only a very small percentage of people.

So if you're in the market for a condo in Seattle, you're probably better off passing on Thornton Place and finding a good deal amid the glut of inventory on the market. That the units have been on the market for so long and haven't sold indicates that they are probably a poor investment: You don't want to stick yourself in an overpriced condo as the largest investment of your life to hedge against the chance of losing your job over the next few months.

The Hyundai deal is similar: Being allowed to return your new car if you lose your job is a good deal but you know what isn't? Buying a new car. Quality used cars are more affordable, and you'll take less of a beating when you go to sell because cars lose the most value the second your drive them off the lot.

The Keller Williams deal, if it goes national and the terms and conditions are favorable, offers the most promise. Because Keller Williams is an agency, the "job loss insurance" won't affect your bargaining position. The seller won't know about it and won't care. It's a third party. It also won't affect the commission you pay because the commission is paid out a predetermined percentage of the sale price in a listing agreement.

But any time someone who is selling you something offers you some sort of gimmicky "special" deal, you have to remember that the value of what they're giving you is being tacked onto the price they would otherwise get for it. There is no free lunch, and overpriced condos and new cars are hazardous to your wealth.
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