The biggest mistake I ever made as a consumer

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By Christopher Elliott

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.

Here goes.

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.

Building challenges in the Florida Keys

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.

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Shocking costs and misleading assurances

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.

Learning the hard way in the ombudsman role

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t use any of my legendary consumer advocacy skills to fix this. In 2003, I was still getting my feet wet in the ombudsman racket. I probably had a slightly inflated sense of my abilities to resolve conflicts, and didn’t fully realize that the hardest cases to fix are the ones you’re involved in.

Mostly, I didn’t appreciate the weakness of my position. The architect seemed to have me over a barrel.

I decided an in-person visit as a conumer might help him understand my position, so I paid him a visit the next day. He didn’t bother to get up to greet me when I came in the office. He just reclined in his oversized office chair, rocking back and forth. As I outlined my case, my mistakes became as obvious as his intransigence.

Mistakes were made

Had I bothered to vet the architect or ask around for references? No. I’d taken a single word-of-mouth referral from a neighbor I hardly knew. After the episode, I asked around, and it turned out this architect had a pattern of submitting useless plans and then browbeating customers into paying for them. He was a con artist with a degree.

Had I bothered to get the $1,500 quote in writing? No again. It was all done on a handshake. It was his associate’s billable time against my word. A small-claims court case to be sure, but who would the judge believe — a small business owner or a short-term resident and consumer like me?

Finally, I asked the architect whether he even cared if the plans were unbuildable.

“You can build it,” he assured me. “We’ll see to it.”

Something about the way he said that made it seem so illegal that I must have recoiled. Only a few days earlier, a permitting official had told me there was no way to build what I wanted. Ever. Who would the architect bribe?

Costly lessons in consumer trust

I wanted no part of it. Eventually I paid the $3,000 and took the scrolls with me. I stored them in the attic and when I sold the house three months later to, of all people, an architect, I left the plans. For all I know, they’re still in the house, collecting dust.

A decade later, I wonder: How could I have been so stupid as a consumer? The answer is complicated. I didn’t spend enough time on research, didn’t do my due diligence until it was too late, and was far too trusting. I placed my faith in the architecture degree hanging on the wall and I trusted my neighbor. Maybe I shouldn’t have.

My biggest mistake as a consumer was mine, and mine alone. It will never happen again. I’m telling it now so it doesn’t happen to you.

It’s your turn now. What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made, and what did you learn? The comments are open.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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