I have a moral dilemma that I hope you can help me with. A contractor was recommended to me by a dear friend. He built a set of bookshelves for her living room, and she said he was very professional, didn’t leave an ounce of dust behind, and did a very thorough job.
On my friend’s recommendation, I called him for a quote for several projects at my house. I wanted to install a wooden interior door where there is now just a doorframe, build some bookshelves and put up a curtain rail over my apartment door. The new interior door was my No. 1 priority.
He quoted me $5,500 for the bookshelves, $2,000 for the door (at least that’s what I heard him say) and $1,200 for the curtain rail and a blind that would also act as a noise reducer. It was early in the morning, and it all sounded like a lot of money.
He picked up his phone and within seconds, a masked man arrived with a tape measure and took measurements. The contractor was giving me the hard sell, and I was struggling to calculate how it all got so pricey. So I said, “Let’s just start with the door.” I didn’t want to commit to a big job.
“‘As he was walking to the door, he said it would be four weeks or so before he could do the job.’”
The contractor said, “Fine! That’s $3,000 for the door. We can make you one, and it would look great.” I was confused and felt under pressure. I thought I had misunderstood him when I originally heard $2,000. He said, “I’ll need a check today.” So I wrote him a check for $3,000.
As he was walking to the door, he said it would be four weeks or so before he could do the job. I had been feeling tired for several days and assumed I had a cold, so I went to bed. When I woke up, there was an invoice for $3,000 for the installation of a door in my inbox. But I felt hoodwinked.
I called around to other contractors and looked up estimates online. The average cost was $400 to $1,000 — nowhere close to $3,000.
I called my bank and asked them to cancel the check. They were reluctant at first. After I explained what happened, they obliged. I waited 24 hours and finally got an email confirming the check had been canceled. Then I emailed the contractor, apologized and told him that he was too expensive.
I had to pay $30 to put a stop on the check. My question is this: If he tells me he had to pay a returned-check fee, am I obliged to pay that fee for him? A friend told me the amount was small enough that I should pay it and move on. What do you think?
A Fool & His Money
Dear AF & HM,
It’s a small enough amount to pay — and it’s small enough not to pay.
But first, this is a lesson for you to trust your gut and not say yes in the moment because you feel like you’re being pushed into a situation that makes you uncomfortable. It’s OK to say, “I need to think about it,” or “Leave it with me.”
It sounds like he didn’t want the job. It was too small for him, and when he realized you were not going with the bookshelf and curtain rail — $1,200 for a rail? — he boldly upped the price in an effort to either make it worth his while, or nudge you to reconsider. Of course, he could have and should have just said, “It’s too small a job.”
Second, never pay the full amount for a job — whether it’s to a gardener or a contractor or a plumber — before the job is done. Some states have regulations about how much a contractor can take upfront. He seemed intent on following through, given that he sent you an invoice. But he could have done a runner.
Third, he indulged in sharp practice. He upped the price on the job when the overall job became smaller, and he quoted you $1,000 more. And then he was halfway out the door with your check before mentioning it would take four weeks to do the job. It was all pretty slick.
“Some U.S. states put a cap on how much a contractor can take from a customer as a downpayment.”
Fourth, he deposited the check faster than a roadrunner would take to get to the bank. He clearly knows his business and is well versed in how to press the right buttons to get a potential client to hand over their money.
Finally, he received a glowing recommendation from your friend. So he benefited from a “halo effect.” It’s not so different from being set up on a date! You may also have wanted to be the best version of yourself and not rock the boat, in case word got back to your friend.
The Federal Trade Commission also has a “Cooling-Off Rule” that applies to a sale made at home — that is, outside the normal place of business — or a door-to-door sales contract that is worth more than $25. “High-pressure sales tactics can leave you wishing you had slowed down and done some research before signing on the dotted line,” the FTC says. There are exceptions to this rule, including sales made entirely online, by mail, or telephone, and sales required to address an emergency.
There are also rules that apply to contractor deposits in some U.S. states, according to Angi.com, a platform for contractors. “For instance, Maryland and Virginia have limited this amount to around 33% of the total contract price.”
“In Nevada and California, advance payments when you sign a contract are limited to 10% of the total estimated job cost or $1,000, whichever is lower. Whatever amount you agree on, it needs to be fair to both parties,” it adds. Otherwise, you can expect to pay between up to 25% for a down payment on a job.
“The FTC has a ‘Cooling-Off Rule’ that applies to some sales made at home — that is, outside of the normal place of business.”
Your story reminds me of the guy who could not say no to the trainers at his gym who kept selling him more classes — to the point that he ended up putting those classes on his credit card. He wanted to be liked, and he didn’t want to disappoint. That cost him.
The “I Always Say Yes” guy told me: “Half the time I am either too tired to refuse or worn down by being guilt-tripped, and I finally give in to them. I have considered giving up my gym membership to avoid meeting these characters.”
I asked him to examine why he would hand over his hard-earned cash so easily, at the slightest bit of pressure. Did he fear angering these people? Was he concerned about coming across as cheap? Was he simply worn down by their hard sell?
Ask yourself these same questions. You were tired and emotional, you were feeling sick, and you were too tired to negotiate or even to voice your confusion: “Wait, didn’t you just say $2,000?”
We all sign on to the social contract to behave with directness, honesty and transparency. When somebody breaks this rule, it takes a while for many of us to process what is happening and, yes, call that person out on their sharp practice.
The price you put on that unpleasantness or awkwardness was $1,000. You just didn’t give yourself the time or space to process what had just happened, and you didn’t trust yourself — until later — to acknowledge that he had upped the price.
There are a lot of lessons for you from your dealings with this contractor. They cost you a $30 canceled-check fee, but it could have been worse. It could have cost you $1,000 — along with and years of staring at that door, knowing that you were overcharged.
For every customer who calls out this contractor on his pushy sales technique, five more probably just hand over that check. That’s why some independent tradespeople have curious one-star reviews sprinkled in among their five-star reviews.
And if this contractor wants to give his customers the hard sell, to ask for all of the money up front and to increase the price on a job in hopes that the client won’t challenge him on it, there is a lesson for him here, too. But it’s a numbers game: Some will fall for it, others won’t, and folks like you will put a stop on the check.
If he does incur a charge and asks you to pay the returned-check fee, you are under no obligation to pay it.
(This story was updated to include contractor law on deposits.)
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