Note: Read this article. I’m so upset at what this company tried to do to my mom and dad that our firm is now offering, ABSOLUTELY FREE REVIEWS of solar energy contracts being presented to senior citizens here in Virginia. The details are at the bottom of this article, but you will see that there is nothing else like our offer here in Virginia. *
Recently, my 86-year-old father, who lives in his fully paid up house built in 1960, called to let me know that a solar panel system salesman had rung his doorbell and wanted to install a solar panel system free and “what did I think?”
I told him that nothing is free, but I’d be glad to be in the room when the salesman came by in the next day or two to explain the deal.
I want to begin by saying that buying a solar panel system might be a good deal for someone, especially if you are younger, make decent money, plan to live in your house for a long time, and like the feeling of “going green.” I’ll also say that the contract Vivint presented was a pretty standard contract for home renovation. There was nothing unusual in it. It just didn’t match what the salesperson was saying at certain critical points.
So, I sat in on the sales pitch delivered by a young guy to my mom and dad, and their 84-year-old friend and his wife, took copious notes, and here is my conclusion:
Beware: A senior citizen on a fixed income from social security, with a paid up 57-year-old house, could easily be misled into a financial disaster by this pitch.
You can find Vivint’s main sales pitch here (https://www.vivintsolar.com/solar-made-simple): Go Solar and Save 10-30% on your energy costs.
First, my dad’s average energy costs per year are approximately $3,000. So this pitch is that “we can save you $300-$900 per year." Remember that figure.
But here’s what the actual contract says:
We have not guaranteed, promised or otherwise represented any reduction in electricity costs in relation to the system that will be installed on your property.
Huh? Their entire marketing is about saving energy costs. How do they get around that? Their marketing has tiny fine print stating that any representation regarding savings is just an average of all customers.
Now I’m going to go through some of the things the salesperson said about why these two families should buy, and I’m going to show you how one could be misled by the contract.
The quotes came, word for word, from the salesman's mouth
We are going to install a solar panel system for free.
This statement is technically “correct.” You buy the system from them for $25,000-$35,000, and they don’t charge any extra to install it. It’s all included. I guess you could call that free. Vivint will hook you up with “our green lender” so that you stretch your payments out 20 years at 3.99% interest. Vivint’s sales rep says that you end up paying a little less each month than you are currently paying to your power company and that energy costs from your current system will go up in the future. (Caution: You still stay hooked up to your power company. You still buy electricity from them on the days where the sunlight doesn’t provide you with all the energy you need.)
Once you install this system, the government will write you a check for 30% of the value of the system.
Later, he amended this statement to correctly state that this is a tax credit and that you can only use it if you actually pay taxes.
The first problem with this is that the contract says:
We make no representation or warranty to you as to the availability, amount or ability to claim any credits, rebates, incentives, tax benefits or certificates that are attributed or related to the System or environmental attributes thereof.
That’s pretty much what they should say; however, a senior citizen might just hear the government will send you a check for 30% of the value of the system part.
The second (and bigger, in my view) problem with this is that these two elderly gentlemen pay almost nothing in taxes, so the tax credit is of no benefit to them. Here’s an interesting article about a senior citizen who thought she was getting a tax credit, but didn’t make enough money to pay taxes.
When this was pointed out to the Vivint salesperson, he said:
Well, maybe what we can do is put the system in the name of one of your children.
That sounded like a suggestion of tax fraud to me. I don’t know, and I’m not a tax expert. The IRS form on residential energy credits is available here. You be the judge. Unless they are actively working and receiving earned income, most seniors are not going to be able to use the tax credit.
This system will increase the value of your home when it is sold by $5,000.
Maybe, maybe not. The value of a home when sold depends on many, many factors. But think about this: You are investing at least $25,000 in something that is going to increase the value of the home by $5,000? Oh, and here’s something the salesman didn’t say. When you use the tax credit, you reduce your basis in the house. It’s a small point, but when you sell your house, everything else being equal, you could pay a higher tax on the proceeds of the sale. (Again, the tax you pay when you sell your house depends on many factors.)
My dad and his buddy wondered what happened if they died. At first, the Vivint salesperson said:
Don’t worry about that, the debt vanishes at death.
Later in the conversation he walked that back a bit, saying sometimes it vanishes, sometimes it doesn’t; it depends on your assets.
This is so misleading.
My translation of that is that if you die and your estate has no assets, and you have no equity in your home, then they aren’t collecting from anyone, which is true. That would be true of any debt. If you have assets or you have equity in your home, this debt is not vanishing.
But then he said perhaps his biggest whopper of the evening:
We do not put a lien on your house when we install the system.
The salesman made this statement in response to a question from my dad to the effect of, “I’m borrowing $30,000 on a 20-year note. If there comes a time that I can’t pay, it looks like I’m leaving my wife or my kids saddled with a big debt."
It’s technically true that they don’t put a lien on your house when they install the system. But here’s what the contract says:
If there is more than one person signing the agreement, each of you is jointly and severally liable to us and if you default (miss a payment by 10 days), we can sue you, report your default to credit agencies and hire a collection agency to collect.
This is all, frankly, what I would expect to see in a standard contract like this, but the bottom line is that if you don’t pay, there will be a lien placed against your house and you will, in effect, be saddling your spouse and heirs with this debt. This is a far cry from the debt extinguishes with your death.
Putting aside all of the oral misstatements, how is this deal (buy a system for $30,000, get savings of $300-$900 per year) of any value at all for someone who is 85 years old?
It's not. Ever, in my view.
The Vivint sales rep had an answer for that, as well:
There’s no reason why anyone who can afford this system shouldn’t buy it. You will be a green energy pioneer.
My thought: Pioneers get shot.
The U.S. government has some beneficial information here that may help you make a great decision about whether solar energy is right for you. https://energy.gov/energysaver/planning-home-solar-electric-system.
The Federal Trade Commission has been asked to investigate similar claims made by other solar energy companies.
* You must secure a copy of the contract proposal and forward it to us, along with your contact info. We’ll have a brief, 10-15 minute call with you, then review your contract and give you a report in writing.
You have to be 62 or over and contemplating buying or leasing solar energy panels for your home here in Virginia. That’ the only “fine print.” No tricks. No. B.S. Just info that you can make a decision with.