The second time we talked, the woman asked, “Who can I sue?” The first time, she had wanted me to come out to her newly purchased $800,000 home to find out why water was leaking into the basement. Turned out the master bathroom shower pan was improperly installed and the fix was to rip out the shower and do it over again — the right way.

Her solution? “There's a guy who says he will re-grout the shower for $50, and that will stop the leak.” Fine. Leave me out of it.

Then it turned out that the rear wall of the house was taking on lots of water whenever it rained. The masons must have put the brick on after the deck ledger was already in place. These folks had hired the least expensive home inspector when they bought the house, and he had neither license nor insurance. Now she wanted to sue someone because they were looking down the barrel of a $150,000 repair. The previous owners probably didn't know about the problem. The home inspector probably had no resources. The builder had long since left town.

This woman was clearly not one to learn from the consequences of her actions. You know why? Some people are just plain cheap. As a result, they never have anything of quality in their lives. When you fixate on getting as much as you possibly can for the least amount of money — above all else — you inevitably lose sight of the larger mission. Like maybe living in a well-built house that functions reliably.

Never Something For Nothing As the saying goes, “You can't cheat an honest man.” By the same reasoning, you can't be conned unless you are greedy to begin with. When homeowners want something for nothing, they're ripe for plucking. And, of course, that's what the low-bid-addicted will never understand. Invariably, the low bid will either do a horrible job or will abuse them with change orders, add-ons, or cost-plus overruns until he becomes the most expensive. The chances of getting a satisfactory result diminish with each passing hour.

As contractors, what can we do to deal with the congenitally cheap? It's largely a matter of degree. The people who make cheapness a religion cannot be redeemed. When you meet one of them, it's best to run far and fast. However, potential clients who think they're being careful stewards of their resources can, in my experience, be enlightened, and even converted into good clients. A few ideas:

  • Marketers talk about the “value proposition” — it's not what you pay but how much value you receive for your investment. The least expensive option is rarely the best deal. I tell prospective clients, in both conversation and in marketing materials, that my company will never be the low bidder; and if, somehow, we turn out to be, it will only be because of some horrible mistake on my part. That approach tends to weed out the cheapskates.
  • Explain that, first, the remodeling process is about relationships. If the clients don't like the contractor right away, he's not going to grow on them. You don't build a relationship based on someone being the least expensive. You build relationships with contractors who are competent, honest, and professional.
  • It follows, too, that the “accepted” procedure of soliciting several bids and then going with the lowest one isn't going to get the homeowners what they want. Offer your prospect the comparison of how well the typical public sector job that's won by the low bidder goes versus private sector projects. Why do you suppose public works projects take five times as long and typically involve huge overruns?
  • If clients want quality work, they should pay for it. That's a fair deal, wouldn't you say? —Jonathan Ward is a remodeling contractor and builder of architectural details in Durham, N.C. He can be reached through