Jim Gellman needed a little extra space.
To accommodate the extra stuff, he decided to rent a storage unit. Gellman made an online reservation for a 10-foot by 5-foot storage unit at Public Storage in Dover.
The reservation, made on Dec. 7, confirmed he’d pay $85 per month for the unit.
On Dec. 23, he paid $54.48 — the reservation fee required by the company — to hold his spot.
The day before the move-in date, Gellman went to the facility in person, and workers confirmed the reservation.
But when he arrived at the facility with his moving truck Dec. 29, less than 24 hours later, he was greeted with a surprise. The unit he reserved was not available.
The workers told Gellman he could have the same size unit, but on the ground floor, which would cost $25 more per month.
It was late in the day and the moving truck, filled with furniture and boxes and costing $150 per hour, was waiting to unload.
Gellman said he asked the Public Storage workers to honor the lower reservation price.
He had, after all, been promised that price less than 24 hours before.
He said the reps said the price wasn’t up to them, but up to corporate. The reps told him they’d see what they could do.
Gellman said he saw them make several phone calls, but in the end, whomever they called wouldn’t authorize a price reduction.
With the moving truck’s clock ticking, Gellman reluctantly agreed to the more expensive unit, and the reps gave him the telephone number for customer service.
WHAT CUSTOMER SERVICE?
Gellman’s luck with customer service was no better.
From the move-in date through the first week of January, Gellman said, he got nowhere.
“I never got through. I’d leave a message,” he said. “The machine said they’d call back, but they never called back.”
Searching for information online, Gellman came across consumer complaint message boards listing complaint after complaint from those who experienced a similar last-minute switch.
Frustrated, he contacted Bamboozled.
We reached out to Public Storage’s corporate offices, but our experience was similar to Gellman’s. Message after message after message was not returned.
Then, bingo. On Feb. 26, spokesman Clemente Teng answered the phone.
“We don’t discuss individual customer accounts,” he said.
Still, we described Gellman’s plight, suggesting the company could contact Gellman directly — rather than speak to Bamboozled — and perhaps come to an amicable solution.
But Teng didn’t even want to know Gellman’s name.
“He should call the customer service line,” he said.
Later that day, we received a call from an assistant in Public Storage’s legal department.
We explained the situation — and gave Gellman’s name and account number — and the rep said someone would call later that day.
No one called.
COMPLAINTS AND THE LAW
The Division of Consumer Affairs said it has five active complaints against various Public Storage facilities in the state.
“The basic allegations in the complaints include billing dispute/scheme, pricing, and unconscionable commercial practice,” spokesman Jeff Lamm said in an e-mail.
We then took a look at the fine print on Gellman’s reservation.
“Above pricing based on availability and subject to change.”
You make a reservation for a price, but it’s subject to change? Then what exactly does a “reservation” mean?
“Availability” is another matter. If you make a reservation for a car rental, it’s quite possible that the size car you reserve may not be available on the day you arrive. Still, it’s customary for a rental company to give the customer a larger car but honor the reserved price.
It’s also good business.
Another sentence on the reservation said: “Reservation required to guarantee price.”
Well, then, if the reservation is made, shouldn’t that price be honored?
That would be the moral move for Public Storage to make. The right thing to do.
But what’s legal?
We took a look a part of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act that concerns “bait and switch” practices.
N.J.S.A. 56:8-2.2 Scheme to not sell item or service advertised says: “The advertisement of merchandise as part of a plan or scheme not to sell the item or service so advertised or not to sell the same at the advertised price is an unlawful practice and a violation of the act to which this act is a supplement.”
We reached out to West Orange consumer-law attorney Madeline Houston for an interpretation.
She said the consumer fraud statute in New Jersey prohibits deceptive practices.
“Very broadly it requires ‘good faith and fair dealing,’ which this is not,” Houston said. “ ‘Reservation’ is meaningless under this contract as I understand it, and it certainly seems to me to meet the requirement of being deceptive under the Consumer Fraud Act.”
To Gellman, it’s not just about the $25 per month extra.
“It’s not right,” he said. “It’s just very aggravating.”
HOMESTEAD REBATE UPDATE
Earlier this month, we told you how changes to the Homestead Rebate, now called the Homestead Benefit, meant that home sellers who sold their homes late in the year — after applying for the Homestead Benefit — may have left behind hundreds of dollars in property tax relief.
Rather than send homeowners a check, the benefit is now a credit on a future year’s property tax bill.
Home sellers who didn’t realize there was a change, or who didn’t know they were selling their homes at the time of their application for the credit, ended up losing their benefit.
The new buyers got the credit on their property tax bill.
The solution? There’s not much of one. Home sellers can ask their buyers to refund the value of the credit — and it’s not clear that the buyer has any legal obligation to do so — or the seller can take the buyer to small claims court to try to recover the funds.
Dozens of readers wrote to say they were in the same situation. They had sold their homes after applying for the credit, and at the time of their application they didn’t know they’d be moving. Many said they were in the process of asking their buyers for their money back.
Then we heard from one buyer who purchased a condo in Bradley Beach in December 2010. A week before our column ran, he received a request from his seller to refund the value of the $299 credit.
The buyer, who asked not to be named, said he was going to return the money.
“It seems to us — my wife and me — that the intent of the Homestead Rebate was tax relief for the person paying the taxes,” the buyer said in an e-mail. “Since the previous owner paid the taxes, she deserves the money.”
“What’s right is right. I would hope most people would be honest,” he wrote.
We hope so, too. And we also hope lawmakers and the Division of Taxation come up with a fix so this doesn’t happen again next year.
We’ll let you know of any changes.