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The Brick: beware of blanket coverage warranty and bonded leather couch

Several years ago I purchased my first couch: a bonded leather couch / sofa. It was from The Brick. The salesperson made such a convincing pitch that even though I swear off warranties, I also purchased the “Blanket 5 Year Furniture Plan” warranty — also called “blanket coverage”. It also came with something called “master surface coverage”. Today, I will no longer buy anything from The Brick, I’ve learned to be wary about “bonded leather”, and I believe that the warranty was completely mis-represented.

The salesperson had told me that if anything happened to the couch for any reason, including cracking and peeling, The Brick would repair the couch and usually they would just replace the couch. He then emphasized the point by saying that if someone sat down with scissors or a knife in their pocket and punctured the couch, it would be covered.

I didn’t expect anything to happen to the couch, nor did I use it for anything other than casual sitting and napping. Less than 2.5 years in, small cracks started to appear in the middle cushion. I figured that this was a good time to get The Brick to repair the cracks, so I called their customer service. They sent someone out to look at the couch. When he arrived, he first grumbled that they probably didn’t have the right colour to repair it with. Then he proceeded to suggest that I either had a pet who scraped up the couch or I had scratchy pants (neither of which is true). He left assuring me that he would report his findings to The Brick and they would call me back.

A month later nobody had called me back, so I called The Brick to ask about the status of my warranty claim. They said it was unclear why I hadn’t been called, but that they would investigate the notes on my file and call me back. A couple weeks later, they hadn’t called me back again, so I once again called them — this time they said that there was a note on the file to acknowledge the cracks but that my claim was denied and that there was no reason given. The customer service rep on the other line said she couldn’t find any explanation for it. She then assured me someone would call back. I foolishly let it slide when no one had called back, thinking that I could just live with the cracks.

By the time the couch was 4 years old, the cracks had really worsened. Small pieces were peeling off seemingly every day, and cracks were appearing at random places all the time (the arm rests, the back, the other cushions, etc.). The middle cushion was hideous:

Peeling bonded leather couch from The Brick

I figured I would try calling The Brick again. This time they argued that actually the warranty I purchased didn’t cover the material of my couch. The warranty covers leather but not bonded leather. Of course, I was very shocked and appalled at this — I argued my case given what the original salesperson had told me, and I insisted that I speak to a manager. I was offered a $100 gift card, proof via e-mail that my warranty didn’t cover my couch, and that the manager of the store would call me back. They never called me back. I declined the gift card (which was equal to the price of the warranty I purchased) because I didn’t intend to shop at The Brick anymore, nor did I wish to encourage anyone else to do so.

I have since learned that bonded leather is closer to plastic than leather, and the word “leather” is quite misleading. In this article from Ellen Roseman, a representative from The Brick suggests that their bonded leather couches aren’t even expected to last 5 years:

“I’m not aware of anyone in the industry that covers bonded leather. We said we’d cover it for new purchases, but I’m a little concerned about that because I’m not sure if it lasts for five years or not.”

Complaints against The Brick are very common, and a Google search will return many stories of bonded leather couches falling apart and The Brick not honouring their warranty. Some people have had better success with The Brick’s customer service, while others have successfully sued The Brick to get a refund on their couch or to get a new couch. For some reason I don’t feel like fighting this one any further — it’s been a frustrating learning experience.

Amtrak Cascades deal: buying and redeeming points is often cheaper than buying a ticket directly

The Amtrak Guest Rewards program enables you to earn, buy, and redeem points for Amtrak travel. For the Amtrak Cascades train route between Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene, Oregon, it is often cheaper to purchase points and use them for travel rather than buying tickets directly.

Enrolling in Amtrak Guest Rewards is free.

A ticket for any 1-way trip on the Amtrak Cascades route (a great train ride!) costs 1,500 points. A business ticket between any stops on the same route costs 2,000 points. In other words, if you go from Vancouver, BC to Eugene (the first and last stop) it costs you the same number of points as going between Seattle and Tacoma (which are only 2 stops apart). You can buy 1,500 points for $41.25 USD, and 2,000 points for $55 USD. (All prices mentioned are USD.) Once in a while Amtrak will have a promotion where buying different points amounts will get you extra points.

The regular prices for buying tickets directly will vary depending on the distance you travel, how far in advance you book, how fully booked that journey is, and of course whether there are any promotions.

The regular prices for a 1-way trip if you book at least 2 weeks in advance between Vancouver, BC and Seattle are as follows:

Non-refundable: $30
Refundable: $40
Business class: $62

The regular prices for a 1-way trip if you book at least 2 weeks in advance between Vancouver, BC and Portland are as follows:

Non-refundable: $47
Refundable: $62
Business class: $96

In other words, promotions aside, using those 2 examples, every ticket level is cheaper between Vancouver, BC and Portland. Business class tickets are cheaper for both example routes.

Refunds for points tickets are apparently possible before you’ve taken the trip, with the points being returned to your Amtrak Guest Rewards account.

If you’re travelling on the Amtrak Cascades route, compare the pricing for booking directly on against buying and then redeeming points. It might be cheaper to buy and redeem points!

How to fix: random exclamation marks in e-mails

If you are programmatically sending e-mails, you might troubleshoot random question marks and random exclamation marks in e-mail bodies. Question marks are often caused by a character encoding issue. Exclamation marks are often caused by a line length issue, and that is almost certainly the case if the seemingly random exclamation mark is followed by a line break. If you view the source of an e-mail — in the Thunderbird e-mail client you can do this by clicking “View > Message Source” — it will be much easier to spot whether you have really long lines of characters.

Line length limits were defined in the Internet standard RFC 2822 and subsequently in RFC 5322. (Warning: they are long and dry reading, although if you’re already reading this post…)

Specifically, those standards state:

“Each line of characters MUST be no more than 998 characters, and SHOULD be no more than 78 characters, excluding the CRLF.”

(The CRLF refers the line break.)

In PHP, you can use the wordwrap function to auto-wrap long lines.

// Force the lines to wrap at 75 characters; if more than 998 characters, you will end up with a forced line break and an exclamation mark
// Note: this is not UTF-8 safe but that's OK because we're not allowing it to cut in the middle of a word
$emailBody = wordwrap( $emailBody, 75, "\r\n" );

HTML dev tools: testing the hover state of elements in Chrome and Firefox

Something I recently discovered, which has been around for at least a year in Chrome and at least a couple of years in Firefox / Firebug: you can preview and debug the hover state in their dev tools without actually hovering over the elements. This is very handy, especially if you’re familiar with the frustration of hovering over the element with your mouse, then trying to quickly move to edit the CSS without losing the hover state.


Testing the hover state in Chrome


Testing the hover state in Firefox

You can also test the “active”, “focus”, and “visited” (in Chrome) states.

Mortgage renewal considerations: principal prepayment privileges and collateral mortgages

When your mortgage term is up for renewal, there is no shortage of factors to consider. Variable vs fixed, interest rate, and term length are the headline details. Beyond those aspects, there are quite a few other factors, some of which aren’t always brought up by your mortgage broker or bank.

For me, annual principal prepayment privileges and collateral charges were two issues that played a big role in my renewal process.

When you enter a new mortgage term, you are often told about an annual principal prepayment privilege, which allows you to make lump sum payments totaling between 10-20% of your original mortgage amount every year without penalty. These payments are applied fully to the principal amount remaining. When you’re renewing your mortgage with the same lender, the “original mortgage amount” is usually considered the initial amount on your first mortgage term. When you’re renewing your mortgage with a different lender, the “original mortgage amount” is usually considered the mortgage renewal amount.

This can make a big difference in how much of your mortgage you can pay off every year. If you opened a 5-year $200,000 mortgage in 2008 with a 15% annual principal prepayment privilege, you could pay up to $30,000 extra per year. If in 2013 you had $100,000 of principal remaining and you were to renew with the same lender, you would still be able to pay up to $30,000 extra per year. If you were to switch lenders, and they offered the same 15% annual principal prepayment privilege, you would only be able to pay up to $15,000 extra per year.

As for a collateral charge mortgage, the major con of such a mortgage is that at the regular renewal time when your term is up, you have to pay extra legal fees if you wanted to switch lenders. Switching lenders at renewal time is usually considered a normal, no-fee thing to do. Some lenders, such as TD Canada Trust and ING Direct, currently only offer a collateral charge mortgage, and sometimes do not point this out to you. On the flip side, there are some benefits to having a collateral charge mortgage, related to refinancing and accessing more credit. CBC Marketplace explains this a bit more; be sure to do your own research about collateral charge mortgages.

In general, remember to make your own list of what is important for you in a mortgage. Be sure that the mortgage broker or bank, who might be more focused on promoting certain products and highlighting certain benefits, takes the time to listen to your needs first. Not every mortgage is the same, and different home buyers / owners have different needs!