WASHINGTON—"You get what you pay for," people like to say when they've just paid a lot for something. But are they right?
You CAN get what you pay for, according to people such as wine critics and car testers, who judge value for a living. But you don't typically get more when you pay more, they said; you just hope harder that you did.
In a series of interviews, value experts in several specialized fields offered some of their rules for getting—and not getting—what you pay for. For example:
_Most $10 California wines are no bargain, according to Wall Street Journal wine columnists John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter. Many $10 Chilean and Argentinian wines are, however.
_Most lesser players in professional sports are overpaid, especially in baseball, according to Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford, who's also National Public Radio's sports columnist.
_Buyers of high-end BMWs and Jaguars pay $20,000 or more mainly to drive the brand, according to David Champion, the chief auto tester for Consumer Reports. Hold the luster and you'll still get most of the luxury, he suggested, from cars such as the Toyota Avalon or even the Hyundai Azera.
Further advice on getting what you pay for follows:
"You almost never get what you pay for when you buy by the glass," according to Brecher. "The prices are exorbitant, the wine has often been open for decades, and it's not very good wine to begin with."
Also, skip the second cheapest wine on a restaurant's list. "Every restaurateur we know denies this," Brecher said, "but you know the story: Nobody wants to look cheap, so they pass up the cheapest wine and take the second cheapest, which in our experience is routinely the worst on the list. The cheapest wine on the list is often the best buy."
In whites, "You're much more likely to get your money's worth with sauvignon blanc than chardonnay," Brecher said. "Chardonnay is so popular that it's become overpriced and dull pretty much all over the world."
In reds, he continued, "Pinot noir is a better buy than cabernet or merlot, and for the same reason."
In terms of wine-producing countries, "The good deals are coming from Argentina and from Chile, and places that you might not think of, like Austria, whose gruner veltliner is an interesting white."
Not so good, at least in value, are California wines. "California makes some terrific wines," Brecher said, "But California controlled the American market for so long that they got flabby with pricing."
Falling in value, according to Gaiter, are mass-market Australian wines. "They've flooded the world with middling stuff."
Buyers of many cars in the $30,000 to $35,000 range get pretty much everything that pricier brands deliver, according to Champion, the director of auto testing for Consumer Reports since 1997. "With premium brand names like Lexus, BMW, Audi and Jaguar, you're trading value for prestige," he said.
Consequently, some of the biggest bargains, according to Champion, are cars that offer luxury features at top-of-mid-range prices.
"A high-end Honda Accord, for example, is about as good as an Acura TL," Champion said, "and it's $6,000 cheaper.
"We actually preferred a Toyota Camry V-6 to a Lexus ES330 for its slightly more responsive handling," he added. He's yet to test the successor to that Lexus, the ES350.
"The Jaguar S Type is not a great car, and the Lincoln LS is basically the same car," according to Champion. "We actually preferred the interior roominess of the Lincoln—and it costs $10,000 less."
The same goes for the Volkswagen Passat vs. the Audi A4. "Passat gives you more car and it's $30,000 compared to $35,000," Champion said.
Consumer Reports' highest-rated car, he noted, is the Infiniti M35, which is $20,000 to $30,000 cheaper than an all-out luxury car such as the BMW 745.
The Toyota Avalon, at $30,000 to $35,000, is also "pretty similar to the big guys," in Champion's view. So is a sleeper—the Hyundai Azera—which costs a bit less than the Avalon.
"Owners don't get what they pay for —just like everyone else—when they buy in a panic," sportswriter Deford said. "It's midseason, they smell a pennant and they think they need just one player to make it work. That's when they overpay."
Example: The 1997 Seattle Mariners, figuring themselves a closer short of a pennant, traded two minor leaguers to the Boston Red Sox for Heathcliff Slocumb, a struggling journeyman reliever. Slocumb went a forgettable 0-4 for the Mariners, but the two minor leaguers—catcher Jason Varitek and pitcher Derek Lowe—helped the Sox win the 2004 championship.
Another time that teams don't get what they pay for, according to Deford, is when a star gets a deal that drives up salaries for everyone else. "Say there's a fabulous second basemen. He gets $15 million a year and he's worth it," Deford said. "But then the other second basemen's agents all say, `Look, if he's worth this, my guy's worth X more than you're paying him.' You don't get what you pay for when someone else has a great second baseman and you have to pay the freight."
Example: Shortstop Alex Rodriguez. His record-breaking 10-year, $252 million contract, signed with the Texas Rangers in 2001 and now paid by the New York Yankees, lifted every infielder's fortunes.
Lots of other bad deals come after a player's had a good year, Deford said. "The mindset is `Wow! Let's get him!' But maybe he's just had a good year. Or maybe he's at the end of a five-year contract and he figures that he'd better get going, so he goes into a salary drive. And sometimes you've paid for and gotten fair market value based on past performance; you just don't know how he's going to respond to all the money."
Example: Pitcher Wayne Garland, after winning just seven games in two years for the Baltimore Orioles, went a stellar 20-7 in 1976, the "option year" before he became a free agent. The Cleveland Indians eagerly signed him to a 10-year guaranteed contract at the then-impressive figure of $2.3 million. He went 13-17 in his first year as an Indian and won only 15 more games thereafter. "My father-in-law said I wasn't worth that much and he was right," Garland said years later.
Conversely, getting an undervalued player whose great years lie ahead is like, well, an $8.95 bottle of wine that everyone raves about even before they know the price.
Example: Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, the best clutch hitter in baseball. After the Minnesota Twins released him, the Sox picked him up for the 2003 season for just $1.25 million.
According to Angie Hicks, whose Indianapolis-based Angie's List Web sites report the experiences of thousands of local consumer-subscribers to one another, the skill of the worker matters more than the materials in most jobs.
"You can buy premium paint, but the real determinant of how that paint job holds up is how it was applied," Hicks explained. "The same thing goes for installing carpet or flooring: The skill of the installer matters greatly. You can buy the highest quality carpet, but if it's installed improperly, you're never going to be happy."
At the same time, she added, consumers often overpay for skill levels that they don't need. "For example, if you need a bunch of weeds and rubbish pulled out of your yard and to replant grass, you don't want to go to a landscaper," Hicks said. "There are lawn-care companies that can do that for you. And the landscaper will cost you more because their labor is skilled at a higher level."
One instance when you rarely get what you pay for, according to Hicks, is when you go to get your oil changed, your mechanic finds lots of other problems and you bite unquestioningly. "Upselling," it's called.
"We sent a man and a woman out with cars to see whether they'd be treated differently, and they weren't," Hicks recalled. "Based on what their cars really needed, both were sold things that they didn't need."