Cash for Clunkers: I got in before the money ran out

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clunkerIt seems timing really is everything. If I had waited just one more day to join the thousands filing into car dealers across the country looking to cash in on the government's latest attempt to reboot the economy, the Cash for Clunkers program, I might not have scored my rebate.

"There are quite a few people who are qualifying for this program," said Steve Hansen, a car salesman in Watertown, NY where I went to trade in my own clunker on Thursday, at the time not realizing that the program was doomed. So many, in fact, that the government is considering a suspension of the program at midnight Friday to deal with the backlog. As of late Wednesday, nearly 23,000 cars had been purchased through the program, taking a $96 million dollar bite out of the allotted $1 billion in less than a week.
The rapidly disappearing "Clunker" funds have caught the attention of some in Congress. On Wednesday, Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., wrote a letter to House leaders requesting additional funding for the program. "The federal government must come up with more money, immediately, to keep this program going," she said on Thursday.

The clunky process

Sneaking in under the wire, I said good-bye to my gas-guzzling carbon-footprint-leaving 1997 Isuzu Rodeo (hey, it ain't pretty, but it was long paid for), opting for a fuel efficient Suzuki Sx4 crossover...and 48 months of car payments.

But the road to the rebate wasn't easy. And it certainly wasn't short.

I admit I was never fond of homework in high school. So it's no surprise I failed to brush up on what's expected of consumers eager to cash in at one of the nearly 16,000 participating car dealers in the U.S. If I had, I would have learned that in order to qualify, I needed more than a clunker. Consumers need to provide proof of insurance for one full year on the car they are turning in. And even though I've never gone a day without car insurance coverage, I couldn't prove it. So began my odyssey with the Car Allowance Rebate System (a.k.a. Cash for Clunkers).

A few calls to my insurance agent and a trip to his office to retrieve proof of coverage and I was back at my local Suzuki dealer.

The good news: I qualified for a $3500 rebate, more than Kelly Blue Book said my car is worth. The bad news: the salesman wasn't as apt to "deal" to put me behind the wheel of new car as he was a month ago. After all, I was already getting more than my clunker was worth. "There's a lot of paperwork we have to fill out," he said, further trying to justify his reticence to haggle. Oh yeah, and the money's quickly running out for the program, which softens my negotiating stance.

Once we agreed on (more like stopped arguing over) the price, the tide of paperwork came in. Granted, signing a mountain of papers is standard when purchasing a new car. But the clunker program definitely bogged down the already cumbersome purchasing process. "There are a lot of pre-qualifying steps needed to make sure all the documentation is in hand before we can proceed with the deal," Hansen explained as I robotically signed. Some of those forms are aimed at proving things like ownership and proof of insurance. Almost six hours later, my journey with the car dealer came to a close.

Their journey with the rebate process had only just begun.

Car dealers, once anxious to clear out inventory, are now worried about getting payment from the government. "We have to apply for the rebate voucher for you and then wait to get our money from the government. Who knows who long it will be before we see that," said Hansen. Who knows indeed. Hopefully, the money won't run out before the 25,000 deals that have yet to be approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to a survey of 2,000 dealers by the National Automobile Dealers Association, are completed.

All I know is, I got mine in time.
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