Somewhere in the attic of my old house in Key Largo, Fla., a reminder of my biggest consumer mistake ever is collecting dust. I’ve never told anyone about it. Until now.
It’s a profoundly embarrassing tale of negligence and naivete — my own negligence and naivete. By revealing it today, I hope that I can persuade you to share your stories, and allow others to learn from them.
In 2003, shortly after our first son was born, my family lived happily in remote South Florida outpost known for amazing scuba diving and recreational fishing. But since I used the second bedroom as an office, our small home was starting to feel a little crowded. A neighbor suggested we build an addition to our house instead of moving, which seemed like a great idea.
The same neighbor referred me to a local architect who specialized in creating plans that were cost-effective and, most importantly, buildable. On Key Largo, the northernmost island in the ecologically fragile Florida Keys, you had to ask for permission from the county planning department before sneezing, and building permits could take months if you didn’t have the right connections.
This architect, we were promised, had connections.
We just wanted to add a bedroom or two to the house, nothing more. After an initial consultation, the architect passed us off to one of his associates, a nervous woman who rarely smiled. I spent what seemed like hours explaining what we wanted — something simple but buildable — and we worked through several drafts.
All along, the associate architect made disparaging comments about her employer. He was difficult to work for, she said. She really wanted to leave, but couldn’t find a better job. She told us she was profoundly unhappy. And it showed: The schematics were unimaginative and while they added to the home’s square footage, they did not make it more usable or aesthetically pleasing.
I began to grow suspicious when she handed me a bill for nearly $3,000 for the work so far, roughly twice her original estimate. I knew that professionals bill by the hour, but had wrongly assumed she would warn us if our costs went beyond the $1,500 she’d quoted for the plans.
So I stopped by the city’s permitting department one afternoon to find out if the architect’s assurances — that I could build this addition to my home — were correct.
“Absolutely not,” the woman at the permitting office said. Not now, she added, and not ever.
Not happy at all
Of course, I told the associate architect about my unhappiness with her bill, the quality of her work and the fact that the home was unbuildable. I said that I’d be willing to pay what we originally agreed for plans I liked and that the county could approve.
That didn’t go over very well.
A few days later, I received an angry letter from her boss, informing me that unless I paid my $3,000 bill immediately, he would slap a lien on my house. A lien, which is the right to take possession of my property until a debt is paid, would have made any sale of the home complicated. And a sale was exactly what I was considering if the plans fell through; it seemed like the only other way to increase our living space.