photoIf you spend your time, as I do, reading and editing consumer complaints and reporting about misfortunes that befall consumers, you fall prey to a condition similar to agoraphobia (fear of the outdoors).

After more than 12 years at ConsumerAffairs.com, you might expect that I would have an advanced case of consumerophobia (fear of buying stuff). But in fact, I don't and it's not because I'm a particularly careful consumer. Rather the opposite in fact: I expect things to go wrong and am therefore not surprised or disappointed when they do. When things go right, it's a pleasant surprise.

Thus, when a relative purchased a tiny but pleasant waterfront apartment (photo) on Great South Bay in Sayville, N.Y., I volunteered to handle the set-up chores, figuring this would give me an excuse to buy lots of toys while also conducting a real-world test of companies our readers frequently complain about.

Transport

Since Sayville is way out East on Long Island and I live way down South (comparatively speaking) in Northern Virginia, the first thing I did was conduct a comprehensive study of my transportation situation. After all, I would be running up and down the New Jersey Turnpike and blasting out the Belt Parkway through Brooklyn, a grueling test of car and driver.

photoThe little two-seater that lolls around my garage was, as it is for most things, useless. Too small. My long-suffering spouse's Saturn Vue wouldn't do. Too old and not nimble enough for chaotic high-speed East Coast traffic.

So after extensive research, consisting mostly of poring through old car magazines at the dentist's office, I stopped into Fairfax Volkswagen on my way to a concert one night.

“Got any all-wheel drive (AWD) Tiguans in stock?” I asked. They had one, all decked out with big alloy wheels, GPS, 87-speaker stereo (or something like that), nuclear headlights and so forth.

“Good, wrap it up and write me a 36-month lease. I'll be back after the concert.”

It wasn't quite ready that night but was all washed up and ready to roll when I dropped by a few days later. The lease deal was just as described – a few thousand down and a monthly payment of about $400, including maintenance. Like many consumers, I don't like to dicker over price and, realistically, as the dealership had only one AWD in stock, my chances of chipping at the price seemed minimal.

The Tiguan, a “crossover,” is everything the VW Touareg is not. It's small where the Touareg is big and economical where the Touareg is boastfully expensive. Cargo room is not great but with the back seats down, it's big enough to jam in two big chairs and a few lamps or end tables.

Its 2-liter turbocharged engine and 6-speed electronic transmission make for a very lively little package. Cargo space is big enough for most chores and gas mileage on several trips up and down the Turnpike and around Long Island worked out to 24.9 miles per gallon. Handling and acceleration are excellent and the all-wheel-drive makes this overgrown Jetta feel like it's nailed to the road.

Verdict: No worries. Great little car, a bit more expensive than comparable crossovers from Honda, Hyundai and Toyota but a lot better-looking and much more fun to drive.

Macy's Furniture

OK, so at that point we had the condo and a car but not much else. The task of furnishing the condo turned out to be relatively easy.

We started at Macy's where we picked out a queen-sized leather sleeper couch for the living room. It cost a few bucks under $1,000 and seemed to be well put together if weight is any indication. The leather was fairly thick and seemed sturdy. Furniture in a beach house takes a lot of wear so we wan't something durable.

But what about delivery? Our complaints about Macy's Furniture would fill a good-sized moving van, and many of them are beefs about botched or missed deliveries.

We began to quake in trepidation, first because we had to cancel a scheduled delivery owing to a blizzard. I motored north a few days before the replacement date and spent the next couple of nights sleeping on a cot that I believe once had something to do with the Boy Scouts. My physicians expect me to regain partial movement later this decade.

The dread day approached. A Macy's computer called to confirm the date and three-hour window. As the day dawned, a cold and very blustery wind blew in off the Atlantic, making it difficult to walk along the narrow outside walkway that leads to the condo after one ascends some narrow, winding stairs and navigates several doors that tend to slam without warning.

Right on time, the men from Macy's showed up – three rather skinny little guys who didn't look as though they could lift the couch much less carry it up the stairs and along the gangplank through the gale-force winds.

But a few minutes later, the couch was set up and unwrapped and the lads were removing the little red booties they had donned before entering the condo and were rolling up the red Macy's carpet. A bit later, we filled out the online survey from Macy's, giving the delivery team an A+.

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Not being one to shirk our duties, we slept on the thing a few times and also lounged around on it. No problems found. The leather seems durable but is soft enough to keep couch potatoes comfortable.

Verdict: No worries. Good value and quality, excellent delivery.

IKEA

The IKEA experience also involved delivery, except that this time it was up to me and Mr. Tiguan. My spouse had furnished me with a list of chairs, tables, etc., complete with the IKEA stock numbers. This meant I could ignore the IKEA showroom and go directly to the self check-out.

photoThe first day I bought two leather tulip chairs. They came in two huge boxes, which fit nicely into the Tiguan. I wrestled the chairs up the stairs, screwed the legs on, plopped down on one and put my feet up on the other while enjoying an adult beverage.

The chairs are comfortable but have the rather dangerous habit of tipping over if you lean on them or even tilt a little to the side. The legs need to a bit farther out towards the edge of the chair and perhaps a little bigger. This is actually not a small defect, as it could cause personal injury.

photoMy next trip to IKEA netted an odd chair I would describe as a sort of Norwegian version of the bentwood rocker, minus the rockers, and a couple of small end tables. These came in small boxes, a tip-off that “minor assembly” lay ahead.

The tables were simple enough but the chair remained in a desultory state for more than a week. The three layers of fabric which fit over the metal frame were – to put it simply – too damned small. Whenever I had some spare time, I would stop by the disassembled chair and tug vigorously on the various fabrics, sort of like trying to squirm into a uniform or suit that fit just great 30 years ago.

I finally got everything stretched into shape on my last day. The chair looks OK and is quite comfortable, though I have my doubts that it would withstand extended use by a person of size.

Verdict: I wish I liked IKEA's stuff a bit more. It is always a little disappointing. I can't honestly say I think any of this stuff will wear very well and the chairs are actually a safety hazard.

UPS

photoOne of the crucial elements in this project was the bed – ordered by my spouse from some company in Canada, the name of which I have unfortunately lost. It is a platform bed with drawers in the bottom and storage space in the headboard, designed for tight spaces.

Customers are warned that the thing weighs about as much as Mars and is delivered by freight, so delivery dates are approximate. We were given a 10-day window, the first day being a Thursday.

On Thursday, I pulled into the condo parking lot after running an errand around noon and saw Big Brown pulling out. We exchanged waves and I made my way upstairs, where – lo! – outside the condo door (up all those stairs and through all those doors) were three roughly eight-foot-long, very heavy cardboard cartons, along with a “Sorry we missed you note” from UPS.

It took quite a bit of blundering around, with lots of help from the family's resident handyman, to get the thing put together. Not the least of the problems was that the bedroom was just big enough to hold the bed – which makes it kind of hard to spread out all the pieces and put the bed together.

The next time I saw the UPS guy, I thanked him profusely for lugging the stuff up there. He smiled and said that he got the best part of the bargain since he didn't have to assemble it.

Verdict: Big Brown comes through again. Accidents do happen (there was that unfortunate incident when a front-end loader rolled over a laptop I had sent myself) but all things considered I have had excellent service from UPS and its great drivers for many years.

Sleepy's

Long Island is Sleepy's home and there seem to be more Sleepy's stores than Starbucks. My biggest problem in buying a mattress was figuring out which of four or five Sleepy's stores in the area was the most convenient.

photoI picked one at random and walked in. No one else was there except for the salesman. Before he could speak, I told him I wanted a queen-sized Serta Perfect Sleeper, firm. Many retail salesmen would be unable to resist launching into their customary sales pitch despite the customer having already stated his decision but, not wanting to snooze past the close, the Sleepy's rep asked merely, “You sure you don't want to try one out?”

“I try one out every night,” I assured him. “It's fine.”

He ushered me to his computer, took down my info, traded a few tales and announced that the earliest delivery would be in two days between 10 and 2. He explained the warranty in great detail, including the conditions under which the mattress could be returned if it proved unsatisfactory.

Total price was in the $1,500 range, including box spring, liner and delivery. I may lose my membership in the Crusading Consumerist Club for saying this but I am not a big comparison shopper. The price seemed about right. Besides, I had my wife's credit card.

A couple of days later, when the gale force winds were once again blowing, two stout and chipper guys showed up on schedule, fought their way up the stairs and in two quick trips delivered the mattress, box spring and liner. They set everything up, invited me to flop down on it (I obliged this time), collected my signature and left. Elapsed time: 10 minutes.

Verdict: Nothing to lose any sleep over. Everything went like clockwork, as people used to say back when clocks were common.

Verizon

photoThings were coming together but not until Verizon's FiOS was installed would I consider the place truly livable. Fortunately, while waiting for the FiOS man, I was able to work by using my Verizon Wireless 3g broadband card, also called the MiFi. Service was very good – download speeds around 3 mbs, decent uploads. (Update: I have since upgraded to a 4g card and the difference is astounding. I use it regularly in Los Angeles, where it delivers download speeds that sometimes hit 20 mbs – cable modem speed.)

Verizon was busy taking over the world and I couldn't get an installation appointment until the following Tuesday. Monday night, therefore, entailed a wild drive up the Turnpike to get to Sayville before FiOS showed up the next day “between 8 .m. and 4 p,m.”

FiOS finally put in an appearance around noon. Hearing a knock, I opened the door to find a sight that has often greeted me in matters telephonic: a Verizon installer shaking his head and muttering, “Not going to happen.”

There were several reasons FiOS couldn't be installed, he said, some technical, others legal. I pointed out that I had filled out numerous online forms and been told installation would be a snap. Nope, he said. Muttering and shaking his head, the FiOS guy drove off, promising to speak to someone about it. He was at least true to his word. Some desk jockey from Verizon called a few days later to say it really was too bad I couldn't have their service, even though at least one other person in the condo complex has it. Something about not enough outlets available.

Verdict: It's amazing that Verizon has spent billions to build such an advanced product while doing such a terrible job of selling it, installing it and servicing it. We had our FiOS connection in Virginia taken out because it sped along at a crawl. It wasn't until after the service had been shut off and we had gone back to Cox Communications that Verizon offered to come out and try to fix it.

Cablevision

I then took the action I had tried to avoid. I called Cablevision. No one ever has a good word for Cablevision, which besides NBC Universal also owns Newsday, Long Island's only newspaper of any import. The customer service rep offered me a triple-play package (phone, TV, Internet).

Nope, I said, all I want is a 30 mps Internet feed. I'll use my cell phone, Skype and Netflix for the rest. He gave me no argument and signed me up for something around $40 per month.

Two days later (as opposed to the month or so it took to get Verizon to come out and do nothing), the Comcast installer arrived, hooked up a modem to the already-installed coax, tested it and left. Elapsed time: about ten minutes.

I hustled over to Best Buy, where a salesman fell into step beside me and asked what I wanted. “Wireless router,” I said. He handed me a dual-band Netgear that was the exact model I had in mind and, without breaking stride, I beat it over to the cashier line, grabbed a Blu-ray of the first season of “The Walking Dead” (strong family resemblance) and was soon back in the Tiguan.

As expected, setting up the router was a snap and in a few minutes, I was watching “Law and Order” via Netflix, checking out the latest FiOS complaints on my laptop and carrying on a rather trite conversation via Skype.

After a few months of occasional drop-ins to see how everything is going, I have heard no complaints about Cablevision, except that service disappears sporadically for no apparent reason.

Verdict: So far, so good. Better than expected, in fact.

Amazon

While we're on the subject of electronics, I wanted an easy-to-use DVD/streaming video system that was not too expensive and didn't take up too much room, as the property in question is truly tiny. Turning to Amazon.com, I ordered a 26-inch ASUS computer monitor and an LG Blu-ray DVD player/streaming video receiver.

photoWanting to avoid having lots of wires, I looked for an all-in-one audio system to replace the built-in monitor speakers and provide a little more oomph. I settled on the ZVOX 525 low-profile sound system, $329 from Amazon. You've heard of a black box? This amazing unit is just that – a short but deep black box that slips in underneath the monitor. It uses phase-shifting (or something) and a bunch of small speakers to create a surround-sound effect that is quite convincing.

The sound quality is quite good. A little fiddling will get you something that lends just the right degree of crispness to dialogue without blasting your next-door neighbors out of bed.

Verdict: Amazon never disappoints. Selection is outstanding, prices competitive and things show up on schedule.

Final Grade

It pains me to say it, but things went pretty well, with the exception of Verizon and IKEA. Back in 1998, when we started ConsumerAffairs.com, there was a widespread attitude among consumers that retailers and product manufacturers didn't much care whether their customers were satisfied.

Whether or not this was true is open to question but certainly, consumers had fewer ways of making their complaints and compliments public and businesses had fewer communication channels at their disposal.

Now, nearly every transaction is followed up by a survey of some kind, asking the customer to rate the product, service and the sales and delivery process. Do I want to take some of the credit for this? Sure, why not? Certainly there are still lots of problems with consumer goods (and everything else) but as this little experiment showed, it is possible to conduct a number of treacherous tasks in a short period of time and come out with a pretty good outcome.

I had a good time doing this and, more importantly, I plan to make frequent return visits to the Closet By the Sea this summer, just to make sure everything remains ship-shape.