Caveat Emptor

Have you ever been rung by a company promising you a product that will improve the health of your home? Have you ever been told over the phone that you qualify for an insulation subsidy? Have you ever been promised a “free estimate”?

Yes, it’s true, when something seems too good to be true it usually is.

I have been amused recently by an advertisement on local radio claiming that solar energy is a great way to “save” power. Um, excuse me but solar photovoltaic panels do not save electricity. They generate electricity. This is about as fundamental a flaw in understanding of electrical power as our local authority’s demonstrated understanding of wastewater treatment. And we all fear what that will cost.

The same ad claims that solar panels “essentially” pay for themselves over their lifespan. First of all, what does “essentially” mean? It does not seem like a guarantee of performance to me. And even if it did, the last time I checked, the lifespan of most photovoltaic panels was 30 years. A payback period of 30 years represents a very marginal return on investment that does not compare to dozens of better investments one can make in power savings for the home.

On one level this type of marketing is amusing but on another level it is concerning because it deceives most of those who hear it.

Please understand, I do not mean to pick on one particular company. I am simply using this as an example to demonstrate my point. Businesses are in business to do business. This means selling you products or services that you may or may not need.

This is not to say that all businesses use questionable sales pitches. Many do not. What it does mean is that enough do that it should make all consumers very cautious. We often hear about “cowboys” in the building and home improvement trades.

Perhaps “bandits” would be more accurate. Sadly, there are enough of them out there to colour the whole industry.

Here is a short list of things to be aware of to protect yourself from getting less-than-your-money’s-worth:

Cold Calls – If you are contacted out of the blue with a “special offer”, ask yourself why have I not heard about this in other ways?

High Pressure Sales Techniques – The more pressure salespersons apply to you (ringing repeatedly, urging you to sign an agreement without having time to reflect), the more skeptical you should be!

Unsubstantiated Claims – Ask to see data that proves the claim. Ask for a guarantee of performance in writing.

“No money down” and Payment Plans – When you buy something on credit you always end up paying more.

Unneeded Products and Unneeded Services – Remember, a salesperson is just that. If you speak to one on the telephone or one comes to your home, they have one thing in mind: to get you to open your wallet.

Sadly, we know that pensioners are targeted in many of these ways. Over the last two years I have visited many homes in Wanganui occupied by seniors who have not been given value for money on everything from curtains to heating systems to ventilation systems. It’s frustrating to come in after the fact and witness the impacts of slick salesmanship or simply bad advice, particularly when it effects those on fixed incomes.

Yes, in this world, good advice comes at a price, but bad advice is almost always more expensive. Fortunately, when it comes to the housing sector there are a number of sources of free, independent, expert advice. Here are a few:

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA):

Beacon Pathway:

Eco Design Advisors:

These are considered among the most accurate and trustworthy sources of advice in New Zealand on everything involving heating and cooling, insulation, controlling moisture, and appropriate ventilation.

Closer to home, you can contact the Whanganui Regional Health Network for advice and to see if you really qualify for a government (EECA) insulation subsidy. Additionally, you can submit your questions to the Chronicle and I will answer them over the next three months. Please submit your inquiries to Anna Wallis, Wanganui Chronicle, PO Box 433 Wanganui or

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Byline: Dr. Nelson Lebo diagnoses unhealthy homes and prescribes cost-effective remedies for any budget.

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