09/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Going Cash for Clunker Nearly Cost Me My Mind

What's better than being able to take your 10-year-old small truck to a car dealer and receive thousands of dollars more than it's worth in trade-in value toward buying a brand new vehicle? Seemed like a great idea to me, so I decided to try it.

So after careful consideration of several auto manufacturers, I drove my black Nissan Frontier pick-up truck to the local Ford dealership in Kingston, New York. Why Ford? Believe me, Ford's having the "Dirty Jobs" guy as company pitchman wasn't my main reason for choosing Ford. I couldn't go after a GM car because when it comes down to it, I simply don't respect the whole federal government bailout. As a matter of fact, I don't think the name "Government Motors" is an appropriate description of GM..."General Malpractice" is more like it. For the record, my personal enmity toward GM is directed at its management and board. By contrast, Ford played by the rules, and took its own risks and is living by them. Besides, since I haven't received any federal bailout money for my business, I'm standing in solidarity with Ford.

And so, on an overcast Friday afternoon, my cash-for-clunkers adventure began. The first question was whether to buy a hybrid or a conventional vehicle. Since I don't do a lot of city driving, the hybrid did not make as much sense, plus its cost is close to one-third more for a car that may only be a stopgap measure between today's cars and the next generation of energy-efficient vehicles. Instead, I settled on a Ford Escape, which has more than 33 percent greater gas mileage than my truck. The cash for clunkers program, along with the rebate, made for a swell deal on a brand new American-made car. Hurray for America! Or so I thought.

And so the nightmare began. Don't get me wrong, the car salesperson and the entire sales team were terrific. They were polite, sophisticated, and really understood everything that I needed to do to get through the cash for clunkers program and buy my nice new car. But what I didn't know when we started the process was the amount of bureaucratic red tape that would need to be cut through to accomplish my goal.

Like many people, I don't always have all my "papers" on hand. My glove compartment is filled with years of old registrations, insurance documents, and other forms that show that the car has been properly registered with the state and is, in fact, owned by me. However, since I didn't have the current registration or insurance documents on hand, I had to make one of several "quick" trips home. After going through many home office files to find them, it seemed like everything was in order and I headed back to the dealership. Back again with the papers in hand, I reentered the dealership planning to finalize the deal. That's when my gas-guzzling, smog-emitting, but still pristine truck was side-swiped by a huge RV with a McCain/Palin bumper sticker that was coming in for repairs. The driver took out the left tail light, and since I hadn't cinched the deal yet, I wasn't too pleased. But the driver wasn't too pleased either when I asked him for his insurance information, asking me why I was bothering to exchange insurance information if I was going for the cash for clunkers program. I told him I had to ask for it, just in case my deal didn't go through.

Meanwhile, although I'd returned to the dealership feeling particularly pleased with the fact that I'd even found the certificate of ownership, which is also required, it turned out that the certificate showed a lien on the truck. "But I paid that off years ago," was my response. "Sorry, the federal government requires that you have a 'payment of lien' document to qualify for this program. Remember, it's the federal government, not us," was the salesperson's response. So I headed back home yet again...still in my gas-guzzling, greenhouse gas-emitting truck. Back home, I found the letter from the bank which, in fact, indicated that the last payment was made several years ago.

Now it was a sunny Saturday, and back to the dealership, very secure in knowing everything was in order, I went. "Sorry," the salesperson told me, "the letter doesn't say 'satisfaction of lien' to qualify for this program, and you need to contact your bank to get this. Remember, it's the federal government, not us." I pointed out that the truck has proper registration, which is indicated by the registration sticker in the window. "Sorry, we need the actual registration, which is proof that the car is registered to qualify for this program," my salesperson calmly repeated. "Remember, it's the federal government, not us." I snarked, "But the registration is in the window!!!"

On we went. Back home over the rest of the weekend COMPLETELY FLUSTERED, I got a few calls from the salesperson attempting to calm my nerves as well as asking me for a few more items of identification, indemnification, and few other "fications" that I never even knew existed.

A week later, I finally have my brand new red sangria four-cylinder Ford Escape, and am happy knowing that I've cut down on my gas consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the stress and anxiety caused by this new federal government program might send many people, including car dealers, away from making the deal, and maybe even to seek medical attention. Which leads to an entirely different discussion about a national health care plan. Don't get me wrong, I agree that our current system of health care needs a total overhaul, but after this experience, I'm worried about how the American government will handle it. When you're seeking medical care, the last thing you need to hear is, "That's not enough to qualify for this program" or "Remember, it's the federal government, not us."

Jonathan A. Schein is the publisher of and