Kid perspectives on contracts

We recently had some windows added to our house. If you live in a northern lockdown state, this might not sound like a big deal: cut out some wood with a reciprocating saw, get a glass module (double pane to save the planet), frame around the glass module, touch up the paint. In the Florida Free State (TM), however, you need to do the following:

  • cut through cinder block and rebar
  • put a lintel above the opening that you just cut so that the house doesn’t fall down
  • pour some new concrete with rebar around the window opening
  • add wood framing just inside the new opening
  • bring in a window company at $3,700+/opening to install an impact-rated window into the wood and concrete with massive screws every 7 inches or so
  • deal with the building inspector multiple times already by this point
  • install new stucco on the concrete that you’ve just poured
  • paint the exterior
  • install new drywall on the interior
  • paint the drywall

The window company said that in pre-Biden times it was possible to find a general contractor to do all of the above (except the window item itself) for $5,000 per opening. We had four openings so it should have cost us about $20,000+ for the general contractor and $14,750 for the windows themselves.

Of course, the old $20,000 is the new $40,000 or maybe $100,000. The window company’s usual partners refused even to look at the project, deeming it too small. Our architect worked with a mid-sized contractor regularly and he quoted $37,250 for his part of the work. A small-time guy who’d done some stuff very reasonably for us in the past quoted $18,000. We’d had huge price discrepancies for some other items at the house, e.g., install a mini-split A/C in the garage so it didn’t occur to us that the $18,000 was a mistake until after we saw how many guys and subcontractors the contractor put on the project and how many weeks it took.

Towards the end of the project, he came back to me and opened by saying that he knew that I owed him only $18,000 because that’s what he quoted. But he had some paperwork to show that the proper cost was closer to $40,000 and explained that he’d made mistakes in preparing the quote, leaving out a lot of concrete work.

I asked out 8- and 10-year-olds what they would have done in the situation. I tried to prepare them for the scenario by asking what if the Honda dealer quoted us $1,000 for new tires and then said they’d made a mistake and asked for $2,000 when the car was completed. They both said that the Honda dealer should be held to the contract. Then I asked them about our specific contractor, whose friendly careful people they’d seen in the house for all four months of the one-month project. They gave the same answer: hold the guy to his bid. I tried to get them to back off from this position by pointing out that the Honda dealer might be worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars while our contractor was just a regular working guy and had a lot of subcontractors to pay, but I couldn’t make them see a distinction.


Excerpts from the Notice of Acceptance that is part of the building permit:

(Readers might reasonably wonder what I decided to do. I paid $37,250, which the competitor had quoted, since that was the only reference that I had for a correctly quoted job. It seemed like a fair price for the quality and quantity of work that was done. (Plus, the guys who were sawing concrete blocks and doing other onerous tasks in the Florida heat and humidity will need money to pay off college graduates’ loans transferred by Joe Biden to the general taxpayer.) It wouldn’t be logically consistent, but if the Honda dealer made a mistake and gave me a written quote that they later said was lower than it should have been, I wouldn’t voluntarily pay more.)

21 thoughts on “Kid perspectives on contracts

  1. Happens all the time. The contractor should have informed you of that when he got his own quotes from his subs – and should have gotten an acceptance from you, or stopped the work, instead of giving you the bill for double his quote.
    At what point did he realize it was a mistake and will cost him double (in subs costs or his time)?

  2. It is a big mistake that makes me wonder how it happened; it shows some degree of incompetence, at least in what concerns producing cost estimates. I admire you for doing what I think is the correct thing. If the “market price” of doing the work was twice as high and you are sure of that, it is fitting to pay that amount. If you can afford it, you will never regret doing what you did. In my opinion, it is a great teaching opportunity for your kids. Doing the right thing trumps the rules. They will encounter similar situations (not always related to market transactions) many times in their lives. My grandfather told me many times not to try to be the smartest but the most decent. It is a lot easier (certainly for me) and it has a better payout.

  3. And now you’ll always have a reliable contractor that does good work.

    Back in 2018, I got four quotes to install a metal roof on an over-sized detached 2-car garage ranging from $5000 to $14,000. Today, it would be $20K.

  4. I agree with what you did (and I would have done the same thing as well with the Honda dealer), and like what ‘Anonymous’ did. I just wonder how long the contractor will stay in business if he/she/zir cannot accurately quote jobs? It sounds as if the work they/zir did was really good, surprised the bid was so far off!

  5. Seems overpriced to not have any windows. Just donate it to some blog commenters & get a barndominium with windows.

    • Greenspun is fully incapable of manual labor or DIY home improvement projects. He is only qualified for a supervisor role.

    • TS: your statement is falsified by a relatively recent blog post. See

      I do need to borrow the neighbor’s hammer drill when securing shelves to the concrete walls with Tapcons, so I can’t call myself a serious Florida DIYer.

      See also my comment on the WaterGuru review:

      A hammer? This is Florida and we’re all about the Tapcons! I spend a huge amount of time doing hands-on house maintenance. We had 20-year-old built-in closet shelves that were sagging down from their studs-attached brackets due to (German Hafele-brand) hardware stripping out from the particle board. So I went on a huge odyssey of jacking these up with hydraulic jacks, putting 2x4s underneath that were toggle-bolted into the metal studs (used a fancy Bosch studfinder: ) or Tapconned into concrete exterior walls. That’s the kind of project that is tough to find someone to do (a “closet company” would just rip out all of the closets and start over) so I used the time that I save from not having to do all of the pool cleaning to do stuff like that.

      Speaking of Tapcons, there are no basements here so it is critical to optimize every cubic foot of space in the garage. That means ordering custom-size wire shelves that are 8′ high and then Tapconning them to the concrete wall so that they can’t be pulled over and crash down on a car or a person.

      There are also plenty of homeowner tasks that aren’t challenging enough for a contractor but that aren’t easy to pay someone to do. Clearing debris from the Bosch dishwasher impeller. Dealing with slightly broken toilets (e.g., new flapper required). Replacing the cracked lens on the light that is part of the garage door opener.

      We have plenty of neighbors with comprehensive tool chests, engineering degrees, and mad mechanical skilz… they all have weekly pool cleaning service.

  6. What’s the contractor’s job? To come up with the price and subcontract the job. It sounds like he only did the second half of his job, so the payment should be for $20,000.

    Was your contract with the contractor “cost-plus” or “turn-key”?

    • Sam: The fixed-price nature of the contract was not in dispute. The contractor opened by pointing out that, by contract, I didn’t owe him more than the quoted amount.

  7. It sounds like you like the guy and wanted to do the right thing by him and his subs. What goes around comes around.

  8. Sobering price for that stud finder. Is it that much better than the Zircon ones which seem to be superseded by a newer model at an impressive pace.

    • Mitch: I got it to find ceiling joists. It does seem to better on that than the simple magnetic one. For the walls, which have steel studs, it doesn’t do any better (maybe worse!)

    • I’ve never been able to get a stud finder, no matter what price, to find studs behind the 700 year old plaster walls in my FL home.

  9. Sound exactly like what happened to me in Texas… with a law firm. Had what should have been a small case which I think got a bit mishandled when the lead lawyer took a long-scheduled vacation (well deserved, by the way. He and wifey had not gotten one in years). End result was after accepting the $15 K retainer and saying nothing about an overrun, at the end the law firm said “That will be another $20K”. I said no. They sent the threatening letter. I spent a few days going over the documents submitted to the court and realized how badly they had screwed up. I think they understood. The never sent the next letter. They got the Honda dealer treatment. With blue collar guys (I grew up there) I always use a chart of the steps involved and make them look at it. A number of times they have caught a “failure to include”. And sometimes they’ve said “I don’t think that’s what you said” (meaning I may have communicated poorly).

  10. Over the course of my career in the investment business, I often got some unsolicited advice. Here are two good pieces of advice that I remember:
    1) Trusting people are trustworthy.
    2) If a counterparty makes an honest mistake, always let him out of it. Especially if you don’t have to.

  11. Good contractors are so hard to find these days. Retirements and meth have thinned out the ranks of qualified people, especially the ones that speak English and you can easily deal with. No insult intended toward tradespeople who do not speak English. But even when they have an interpreter, he/she probably will not understand the work. Construction problems always run into tricky things that you need to discuss. You probably did the right thing and impressed a lot of guys in the trades, always a good thing.

  12. Double pane only? Did you learn nothing in Europe? We’ve got triple as standard for the past 20 years, quadruple as the next step.

    • Triple pane is extremely rare in Maskachusetts and I have never heard of it in Florida (difference between inside and outside temp almost never more than 10C).

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