Renegotiating a Low Estimate

Q. My contractor estimated that it would take two days to remove my wallpaper and then paint the wall. But it turned out the wall was in bad condition and it took three days instead. I’m thinking of offering him extra payment, but I’m not sure I should. After all, if the job had taken less time than we anticipated the contractor could have charged me the full amount! 

A. It’s true that when you hire a contractor you are paying for results, even though the price is usually based on an estimate of the required work. So the price quote does take into account some normal variation in the amount of work required.

However, when there is a big surprise, like the bad condition of your walls, then the fairest policy is to adjust the payment. Jewish law states that when an employee does more or better work than expected in the face of unexpected conditions, he is justified in expecting improved treatment, even when he can’t actually compel the employer to give extra. That extra effort may not be mentioned in the contract, but it is right and fair to acknowledge it.

Remember that the contractor could have just cancelled the job as soon as he discovered the state of your walls. Of course he would have received no payment, but he wouldn’t have been stuck with the extra work. By continuing even after knowing that the work would be more than expected, he really did go the extra mile to do a good job.

If, when you first hired the contractor, you gave him reason to believe that the walls would be in good condition, then you are definitely obligated to pay him extra, at least if he demands it. In this case the reason for the deviation is not normal deviation but rather the fact that you unintentionally misled the workman.

Of course the same thing applies in the opposite direction. If the work takes much less work than anticipated, it is fairest if the contractor offers a discount. From readers’ letters I know that many business people adopt this policy.

Our modern economic system is based on the “invisible hand” of the market, the idea that economic incentives result overall in economic prosperity, even if in certain individual instances there is a lack of fairness. But belief in God teaches us to supplement this idea with an acknowledgement of the Hand of Providence, the hand of God, which provides for each person individually. “You open Your hand and satisfy each living creature (Psalms 145:16).” Even if sticking stubbornly to the contract does lead to a fair outcome on the whole, we should strive whenever practical to achieve a just result on each individual transaction.

SOURCES: Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 333:5, 334:1; Aruch HaShulchan, Choshen Mishpat 333:27.