Archive for the ‘TCB’ Category:

Chicago Auto Repair

December 9th, 2008

Last week my 1997 Jetta VR6 turned on her check engine light.  Doh.  So I embarked on that adventure that every car owner does in a new city – find a good auto mechanic.  Since I have a Volkswagen, I’m limited to shops that deal with European cars, making it tougher to find a good yet affordable mechanic.   Luckily yelp, my favorite review system, has auto repair reviews.  I took the best ones where people mentioned VW, Volkswagen, or Volkswagon (many misspell it), and cross referenced them with what I found on cartalk mechanic reviews.  I came up with 3 I wanted to try.

The first shop I called, Accurate Imports, was able to inspect my car that day, spending about 2 hours and coming up with an exhaustive list totaling about $2k in repairs.  Ouch.  However, they only charged my $10 for pulling a nail out of the tire and patching it – diagnostics and estimate were free.  At this point I decided I should get one or two more estimates before dropping that kind of cash.  The second place I visited, European American Motors, did a brief inspection, charging me $56 for check engine light diagnostic and listing similar items (although not as complete as the first, but they acknowledged they need to hoist up for a thorough check and did not have time that day).  The third shop, Chicago Import Service, did not have time to see me till the following Tuesday.  I was there for almost 2 hours and they didn’t find much wrong at all, charging me $95 for one hour’s worth of labor.

All three shops reported the engine light turned on because of a lean fuel condition, with AI and CIS saying they weren’t sure exactly what caused it but thought replacing the fuel filter might solve it.  EAM indicated the Mass Air Flow Sensor needed to be replaced.

Here is a breakdown of cost estimates, with the forth column being my San Francisco shop, Advanced Audi – VW.

Labor Rate $90/hr $80/hr $95/hr $100/hr
Check Engine Light (actual cost) $0 $56 $95
Replace Fuel Filter & clean Fuel Injection System $126
Replace Fuel Filter $61 $67
Fuel Injection System Test and Clean $112
2 front tires bald, replace all 4 with all-season $420 noticed noticed
Serpentine Belt Dryrodding $154 $144
Replace inner tie rods in front $368 noticed noticed
Fix Oil Pan Leaking $268 noticed
Oil Cooler O-Ring Leaking $95
Thermostat Housing Leaking Coolant $240 noticed
Water Outlet (same as above?) $132
Rear Brakes Down 10-15%, replace rotors $290
Oil Cooler O-Ring Leaking $95
Mass Air Flow (MAF) Sensor $258 replaced 9/2007

First, I want to point out all 3 shops are good – they all gave written estimates and communicated clearly, answering questions intelligently when I probed a bit deeper.  Joe and Oscar at AI were the best at explaining, Rudy at EAM gave the most detailed written estimate, and Alex at CIS was above average compared to mechanics in general.

Which is better?  Not an easy question to answer.  However, both AI and EAM found problems with the Serpentine Belt and emphasized that it should be the first thing to be fixed.  CIS did not mention this, plus charged the most for labor including an initial hour fee, so I would not recommend them.  I liked EAM because Rudy seemed the most knowledgeable mechanic, plus they were a bit cheaper.  At the same time, I don’t entirely trust Rudy when he told me I needed to spend $260 to replace my MAF sensor, which i did about a year earlier (There are lots of reports of MAF sensors being replaced unnecessarily).  I went with AI because they were the most thorough, which is most important.  They are not the cheapest, but they listed items my SF mechanic mentioned when I had my VW checked in July, 2008.  Plus they were great communicators, seemed experienced, were knowledgeable, and appeared quite trustworthy.

12/12 Update – AI did the job as expected, about $2,000 (half in labor, half for parts).  I mentioned the Mass Air Flow Sensor, and their response was that the engine light code was for lean-fuel, MAF has a different code.  They also pointed out that the MAF has little wires that are sensitive and can get dirty, causing it to appear broken but often it just needs a little cleaning.

Illinois Car Insurance Reviews

November 26th, 2008

As a recent transplant to Chicago, I need to update my auto insurance.  My current insurance is with AAA, which provides decent rates for San Francisco, but I’ve had terrible experiences with them when filing claims – I have a $500 deductible and have had my stereo stolen 3 times over the last 3 years, each time costing me around $1,000 from broken windows and other stolen goods.

When shopping for auto insurance anywhere, here are some good questions to ask insurer. But who wants to spend the time talking calling insurance companies to ask them lots of questions?  I don’t, but I wish there was some organization that did and listed the results. Ideally somebody would make a site like but for insurance, having sliding scales for variables.

  • – claims to check 12 insurance companies, 10 mins on site yielded 4 quotes from esurance, hartford, electric insurance, and AIG direct.  quotes were about the same as Geico (see below).
  • insureme – less than 10 mins to fill out forms, resulting in 4 emails, 3 calls, and a web page listing 12 insurance companies … but only GEICO gave a partial quote (had to fill out some more info to get quote), the rest were basically advertisements.  Waste of time.
  • netquote – less than 10 mins to fill out form, similar to insureme.  No quotes resulted from this, just more annoying ads.
  • State Farm agent emailed, called, and sent me a text.  A bit too aggressive.
  • Geico – easy, fast online application, almost half what I paid AAA in San Francisco, and above average reviews on epinions (I only considered companies with 40 or more reviews).

Geico it is.   If you or a family member is in the military, USAA looks good, too.  I found alot of crap advertising and useless sites on my search, but kirtok reviews, squidoo are worth mentioning.

UPDATE 2011-6-5

I sold my previous car, the chadilac jetta, about a year ago and cancelled geico at that time.  Cancelling was super easy – I called and asked to cancel, they asked why, I said i sold my only car, they said fine – we’ll mail you a check.  Done.

Over the last year we were using zipcar, but this week caved in and bought a car again – a 2009 Jetta TDI.  I researched insurance companies again and Geico was one of the cheapest and best around, so we went with it. I”m also really impressed by how good their website is – once you join you can find all the info you need.  Props to Geico !!

GMAT: 0 – Chad: 1

November 21st, 2008

This has been a big year for me.  First, I decided to move to Chicago after living in California for about 13 years.  Second, I ran a marathon, one of those life long goals that I’m happy to have completed.  And yesterday I took the GMAT, the first (and some say the hardest) step towards getting a MBA and a new career.

Not only did I take the GMAT, I took it by the horns, wrestled it to the ground, and said “Who’s your daddy?”  Ok, not really, but i did do much better than I expected.  I could have done worse – I was low on sleep and low on practice (practice CAT exams). I also know I did not do my best, and I firmly believe with more practice I could have done better.  In fact, practice is the most important thing.  Here’s all the tips I have learned.

  • Practice – The most important thing by far.  I recommend taking a few practice tests at first (or just answer tons of questions) so you get a feel of where your natural strengths and weaknesses are.  Then study (more below on that), ending by practicing again and again.  During this latter phase of practicing, make sure you do CAT tests, not just non-computer paper tests. This is important if you’re targeting a high score, since most of the CAT questions will be very difficult and time consuming, as compared to non-CAT exam questions which you might be able to finish with time to spare.
    • Download sample test from (windows required)
    • Take MGMAT tests online (see Manhattan GMAT below).
  • Study –  This depends on how much time you have to prepare, but try to spend 1-4 hours at a time at least 3 times a week.  I studied for about 8 weeks, 80 hours total, logging 30 of those hours during the 9 days prior to my exam. I would not have studied that much if I had a full time job.  Lucky me?
  • Class – Unless you’re rich, don’t take a class. If you are rich, get a tutor for custom help.
  • Books – You can learn almost everything you need from these, strategy and practice questions. Amazon comments compare books better than I do, but here’s my nuggets:
    • The Official Guide for GMAT Review, 11th Edition – the bible.  Authored by GMAC, the guys who do the test.  The most practice questions. Good place to start to identify your weaknesses.  There’s also 2 other versions, verbal and quatitative (math), that I bought but don’t think were needed.
    • Manhattan GMAT 2007 – I bought 3 of the 8 books in this series, they were good but not great (I liked the sentence correction the best).  Get at least one new one so you have access to their online tests – one book gets you one year access and 5 complete practice MGMAT exams with hard questions and solid answer explanations.  My favorite practice tests.
    • Barrons’s 14th ed, 2008-2008 – I thought this book was a good overview, nice to get the same basic information in a slightly different way.  However, I found some errors in the answers to this book, making it a bit frustrating since I felt I could no longer trust all the answers.  I don’t recommend it.
    • Kaplan’s or Princeton review – I chose not to buy based on a few reviews, but never read them myself.  In hindsight I would recommend Kaplan’s over Barron’s.
    • McGraw-Hill’s 2008 -first book i got, from public library.  Not a bad book, but if you’re buying there are better ones.
  • Online – You will have some questions that books won’t answer.  Or you might want to join or start a MBA study group in your area. I found the beat-the-gmat forums useful.

Got any more suggestions?  Leave me a comment!!

Now the next step is researching MBA programs. You can send 5 copies of you GMAT scores to business schools for free the day of the exam, normally it costs $28 per copy per school.  So it makes sense to figure out which programs you might attend.  On test day you have to pick the schools before you get your score – I sure wish you got your score first. I’ll still in the middle of this research, although I love sustainable and socially conscious programs (yay for Beyond Pinstripes Top 100). Stay tuned for a future blog on this one.

I’m still working on finding a job, so if you know anybody who wants someone who is great at problem solving and is a very effective communicator, point them to my resume.

Health Insurance 2007

December 18th, 2007

Over a year ago i talked about getting health insurance. As I discussed in that blog, I ended up with Blue Cross PPO. Over thanksgiving health insurance was being discussed, this time with my sister and her family, and decided I should re-survey the landscape. Especially since Blue Cross jacked the price in March 2007 from $127/month to $170/month.

This time I went with Blue Shield’s PPO 4000 plan. Basically its $96/month for $4,000 deductible. Once deductible is met, Blue Shield covers pretty much everything, as long as i see in-network doctors. But until deductible is met, i pay for everything myself except regular doctor check-ups, which are $35. Of course, you never know if everything is really covered. Once again, thanks to eHealthInsurance for making it easy to find and apply for my current plan.

Health Insurance

September 25th, 2006

Yeah, I’m insured !! Took me a couple months to sit down and decide what to do, but i finally did it a couple weeks ago and today i got my insurance card in the mail. Hurray. For the record, I spent a half day doing it – reading up on stuff, picking a plan, and applying. For a single healthy guy like me, it wasn’t that hard. Plans start around $60/month and go up past $400/month. There are also tons of sites that let you compare different plans, form the major players to smaller insurance companies. I liked the best – i applied on 9/7, they sent me email a week later saying i was approved, and got my card a week after that.

The plan i picked is the “PPO Share 2500” plan from Blue Cross of California. For me, thats about $127/month (price is based on location, age, and deductible – see the PDF). That’s a $2,500 deductible, with a $7,500 out-of-pocket limit, $35 copay for doctor visits, $10 copay for generic drugs, and a 30% coinsurance for most other things. That means after i’ve spent $2,500 of my hard-earned cash, Insurance will start to cover 70% of the bill on most things till i’ve spent $7,500, and then they should cover it all. Well, let’s hope so – there’s lots of fine print, not to mention blue cross is shady

Note that this does not include dental or vision – dental was about an extra $30/month, not sure what VSP would have been. I just saw dentist and eye doctor in the spring, i figure i could go a little bit without those. After all, i’m really just getting insurance for catastrophic things that might cost $100,000 or more to fix – i’m not really interested in having insurance pay for little things like teeth cleaning or another pair of glasses. Now I can go do dangerous things like burningman and hike half dome .. oh wait, i already did that.