My friends know what I do for a living. It's not unusual for them to tell me about their HVAC systems, or to ask me a few questions. So it wasn't strange when Marge and Harry (not their real names) mentioned their furnace the other day at an art fair.

For background: Margie and Harry aren't wealthy. She works in fast food and he owns a catering truck. They have the usual expenses (mortgage and car payments, utilities, groceries, doctor bills) and some that aren't quite so common (taxes on a parents' home, child support).

Maybe it was the combination of all these circumstances that made me kind of surprised at what they told me. They had a high-efficiency furnace and a new air conditioner installed at the same time. "There was only $600 difference between the lowest-cost system and the top of the line," said Harry. "I couldn't see any reason not to get the best when they're both around $6,000."

See, I made the mistake of considering their income instead of their personalities.


The company that installed their system must have given them a good deal of information about the benefits of getting "the best." The contractor probably explained how that $600 would be spread out in their loan payments, vs. the amount of money they would save on their utility bills.

Marge and Harry were probably more receptive than they might otherwise have been after last winter's heating bills. The increases in fuel have taken a lot of shock factor out of the sticker shock this market usually encounters.

What really interested me is that the contractor evidently took the time to explain the benefits of going with the top of the line and installing a new air conditioner at the same time. Oh, did I mention that they also got an electronic air cleaner? Oh yes they did. Neither has allergies and they both smoke.

The contractor had to have taken a look beyond the income and habits - facts that might make Harry and Marge look like a couple not so likely to go for the best. Somebody took the time to find out that they are homeowners who invest in their home. Harry is always doing something to fix the place up.

The neighborhood is a mix of white and blue collar folks in Southeast Michigan. The home is 70 years old, sturdy, and kept up very well. Sure, there's usually some project going on. Isn't there always. There are plans for new windows. Harry is a regular at Home Depot. It probably wasn't very difficult to convince him that it was worthwhile to invest in the home's mechanical infrastructure.


The one sale the contractor lost on this job was for duct cleaning. Harry and Marge brought in another company to do that - and for all I know, the contractor and duct-cleaning company may work together on a referral basis.

Margie was mighty impressed with duct cleaning's gee-whiz factor. "They recorded it," she gushed. "We got to see the thing inside there, zipping around; 70 years' worth of dirt! There was some old playing card in there and who knows what else." She and Harry agreed that they are feeling more comfortable, especially at night. "Even the dogs feel better," she joked.

I didn't ask them for any of this information. I didn't know the work was being done at the time. But once they started talking about it, I couldn't have gotten them to stop if I'd tried.

It confirmed everything I've ever heard about not judging what people need based on their income. You have to look at the people themselves. Tell them what is available. They might decide that they're worth the best.

Publication date: 09/11/2006