Last modification: 01/19/08 19:26


U-Haul Hell

Caveat Rentor!

Everyone, at some point, needs to rent a U-Haul vehicle of some kind. They're convenient as all heck, they're everywhere, and there's a white-trashy ambience that the competition (Hertz-Penske, Ryder, etc.) can't match. Whether it's towing a car, installing a trailer hitch or renting something big for that cross-country move, U-Haul is there.

But unlike Sears and Hewlett-Packard, great companies once synonymous with goodwill and trust, my experiences with U-Haul have been consistently dodgy. Ever walk into a shop and get that skin-crawling feeling that there's some kind of bait-and-switch fine-print surcharge atmosphere in effect, but you're just too naive to pick up on it yet? Thank god for the Internet, the great equalizer.

Now, it may be that each U-Haul is different; some certainly seem to be better than others, but there's one local branch that is so consistently dodgy, so shark-infested, that it stands out among all the rental companies I've done business with on both sides of the US. It's the U-HAUL CENTER OF SUNNYVALE.

Allow me to get something straight. I have no beef against this particular location because I was ripped off and therefore have an axe to grind. Indeed, I have assumed that my dealings with U-Haul have been rip-off free thanks to being sufficiently lawyerly to avoid all the surcharge landmines, but now I'm not so sure. Judging by the suckers (er, good folks) in line in front of me and overhearing their problems, I'm certain that some serious Consumer Advocacy is in order.

U-Haul is not your friend. It is a business that runs on the Blockbuster model (did you know that late fees account for over a third of video rental store revenues?) Every time I’ve used this particular U-Haul it’s been an exercise in frustration – they play a nasty little con game really, trying to maximize the potential for customer misunderstandings sometimes going so far as to help them along with a little bit of verbal misdirection. Unfortunately, since the misunderstandings usually seem to result in additional charges to the consumer, the experience is like walking across a minefield. Don't believe me? Check out what the Better Business Bureau has to say. (Click here for .PDF)

List of Well-Known Questionable Practices:

1)    The Mileage charge. I know this, but it’s a terrible misdirection to first-timers to have all trucks labeled “$19.95 In-Town® Move!” when it’s the mileage charge that kills you. At $.59 per mile, it’s gotta be the highest in the industry. And why the ® mark after the phrase “In-Town” ? Is that some kind of Clintonian label?

2)    Diesel gas. Never mind that Diesel’s hard to find and expensive, but you have to drive at least 4 miles from the shop round-trip to the nearest Diesel gas station. That’s a minimum $2.40 in mileage charges, in an area otherwise teeming with unleaded gas stations.

3)     Poor gas mileage. Some folks on the Net are talking about the “5-6 miles per gallon” they got with their trucks.

4)     Broken down gear. My truck had a horn that stuck, a broken radio, scratches and dents all around, but at least it was mechanically sound. Pretty good for a U-Haul.

Ok, so everybody on Epinions mentions these things. But I find the following items much more nefarious.

List Of Unethical Practices:

1)       The “Return with as much gas as you got it” clause. First, this isn’t the same as your typical rental car clause, which charges you $2.50 per gallon if you didn’t return with a full tank. Basically, there are no full tanks (read on) and this is by design. As I checked out, the cashier told me that my truck had ¼ tank full, which was being noted on my contract. As they took the contract away from me immediately after the walkaround inspection, I had no way of verifying what they wrote down except: when I double-checked the actual fuel level, it was half full!

Imagine if I had actually returned the tank 1/4 full: I would have been dinged a $20.00 “service fee” and $2.00/gallon in order to make it half., “Hey, but you told me it was ¼ full!” I’m sure the cashier wrote the correct level on the clause after taking it away.  Note that U-Haul would profit even if the cashier said to return it “3/4 full”, but in this case they’d only get some extra free gas (no service fee.)

2)       Tanks Not Full. Since they’re not, you have to estimate at the pump exactly how many gallons to pump in order to match the original level when returning the truck. Of course you can’t. You’re going to end up putting in more gallons that necessary to be on the safe side, and they don’t refund you for the extra gas, either. This isn’t an issue with rental cars, since you can’t overfill a full tank.

Now if you received a truck nearly empty, what are you going to do? You’re going to guess at a sufficient amount of gas for the day and pump it immediately to get your job done. What if you were to fill it up and (gads!) and siphon out the extra amount at the end of the day? A sticker on the dashboard reads:

“This truck will hold up to 5 gallons more gas after the hose clicks off due to an anti-siphon device.”

My  God! They think of everything. At least this truck didn’t have a 50MPH governor "feature" (like my first U-Haul did.)

3)       Tanks Not Filled Despite Customer Fines: Note, that at the Sunnyvale store, judging by the fight over this issue I saw in line the day before, they zealously enforce the “Return with as much gas as you got it” clause – which, of course, is itemized as a gas ‘n service charge. However, although they take that money they don’t actually seem to buy any gas with it – it’s just extra profit to skim.

4)       Repairs Not Done Despite Customer Fines: My truck was riddled with scratches & dents. Now, they make a big deal about how much these dents cost to fix (there’s a price list on the clipboard you use while performing the customer inspection). Again, this is just another profit to skim: If you dent, you pay (for the repair) – but that doesn’t mean they actually fix it!

5)    Truck Pre-Inspection Liability Borne By Customer. If the customer misses a pre-existing dent or scratch, he’s liable.  First off, the trucks should already be in perfect condition (point 4 above notwithstanding.) If not in perfect condition, the walk-around should be performed by a member of their own staff while the customer watches - again, like a rental car. That way customers aren’t liable for making mistakes in underestimating damage, which is a horrible way to make a buck. Besides, they’ve already estimated any pre-existing damage themselves when the last customer returned the truck – I can see no legitimate reason for having the next customer evaluate this again! When I pointed out the damage, they said “We know about it, we’ve marked it.” Where? As tiny little near-invisible “x”-shaped pieces of tape on the dings. Man, they could easily and surreptitiously remove any of these stickers at return time, particularly if the customer had missed one on his check in. That seems to be the only point of this! They could fine endless customers for fixing the same ding over and over, while not actually repairing anything.

6)       Just Plain Unreliable Gas Indicators: Although this may be common to other types of trucks to various degrees, I have seen no gas indicator vary as much as this one did. I saw over ¼ tank variation on the indicator, even when driving on flat or mildly level land! On hilly areas, worse still.

7)    Possible Abuse of Estimated Mileage charges. More on this below. 

Now when I brought the truck back, I knew I was squeaky clean and fine-free. This gave me the moxie to play consumer advocate, and ask them straight out about Unethical Points 3 and 4. Man, this got both of the two clerks running off at the mouth simultaneously as fast as they could, and it was all I could do to pick out such gems as: “We’re not gas station attendants. We hate it when we have to get gas. It’s not our job. We only fix repairs when they were insured by the customer. (Gee, what about all those non-insured charges?) We’re a family-run company,  and still privately held. Very profitable, very profitable. And we don't refund when a customer returns with too much gas, either!”

Alright, so they’re not only aware of the scams, they appear to be proud of them! This was confirmed when I addressed the issue straight out: “Look, I know a profit center when I see one. This isn’t about repairing damage or replacing gas, because you’re not even doing that. This is about skimming extra profits.” They were grinning from ear to ear at this, and were still jabbering on in support of  the Capitalist American Way as I was on my way out the door. Even the privately-held part was wrong: U-Haul is part of a holding company called Amerco, traded on NASDAQ under the ticker symbol UHAL.

So how much did my latest $19.95 (plus mileage) U-Haul truck cost to rent? $59 to rent (plus $19.25 for 11 gallons of diesel when probably 8 would have been sufficient) for one trip to the landfill whose dump fees cost less than the truck. At least I got a truck: Sunnyvale had lost my reservation when I came to pick it up, even after supposedly charging my credit card $1.00 the day before to“hold the truck.”

Interestingly, when I picked up the keys, they presented me with a credit-card style receipt that had an itemized list of expenses of which only the $19.95 was legit. “All those other numbers are just guesses at what your fee might be like. Only the $19.95 is real. The rest will all be corrected when you return the truck."

Now what’s that about? Is it a way of letting customers know in advance that these things are expensive after all, so can’t come back and complain about the mileage charge later? Or do they attempt to place a credit card “charge hold” on this amount figuring it’s typical, and charge back the adjustment later? Or do they just charge the "guestimated" mileage and hope the customer doesn't double-check their odometer math? If so, they got me here. I'm quite certain I ran up less than $34.81 in mileage charges, and tomorrow I'm going to retrace my route and find out.

"I AGREE THAT COMPLETION OF THIS RENTAL AGREEMENT DOES NOT RELIEVE ME OF MY OBLIGATION FOR OTHER CHARGES FOR WHICH I AM RESPONSIBLE, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO: CHARGES FOR EXTRA MI/KM. EXTRA DAYS. MISSING OR DAMAGED EQUIPMENT, PARKING TICKETS, ETC.

MY SIGNATURE BELOW ACKNOWLEDGES MY ACCEPTANCE OF THESE TERMS AND PROVIDES AUTHORIZATION FOR ADDITIONAL CHARGES TO MY CREDIT CARD."

This is the boilerplate language on the credit card bill you sign when paying for your truck. Why the "Extra MI/KM" clause? Surely your truck isn't going to be driving around all by itself after you've returned it? Did they note the odometer reading when you returned it or not? I'm inclined to believe that they don't check the odometer when you get back - they just bill you their original "guestimated" mileage, and then charge you more later if and when they get around to checking the odometer. And if you were below the guestimated mileage? Good luck. More profits to skim!

You know I'll be checking my credit card bill carefully next month. Caveat Rentor!


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