Gripping story: Case of the hugging handyman

"I thought it was cute," the woman explained. "Then it got oppressive."

She was describing a neighbor's unusual approach to doing odd jobs around her house: He charged much less than the going rate– but, she claims, expected hugs in return, hugs he termed "an exchange of energy."

This is one of those rare times when I'm not going to use real names, because the potential for humiliation outweighs any potential gains. Let's call the woman Eleanor Harris and the man Richard Pine.

Pine, who is retired, enjoys doing repairs and small construction projects around his subdivision. He does good work, and Harris was delighted to find someone who would work for only $7 an hour– but then those "energy exchanges" started feeling pretty expensive, and she began to dread them.

The last time he gave her an estimate for a job, she claims he said, "I'm going to charge you $100 plus hugs."

An avalanche of miscommunication followed. Harris, assuming that meant he'd be charging even less than his usual $7 an hour, replied, "Oh, no– I want your regular rate." In other words, what she hoped he'd hear was "I'll pay you $7 an hour, and no hugs." But since nothing was made explicit– let alone put in writing and signed by both parties– the agreement was left open to interpretation.

Pine installed a rainwater catchment system for Harris and did some other work inside the house. Three months later, he sent her a bill for $275, which included $20 for mileage, $63 for materials, and 14 hours of labor– at $14 an hour. In other words, Harris deduced, his rate doubled when it didn't include hugs.

Harris balked, and sent him a check for $77 along with a note promising to pay another $77, for a total of $154– but no more. Pine accepted that amount, even though it meant that, after subtracting the $63 in materials, he received only $6.50 an hour. I'm intentionally omitting the $20 in mileage, which I believe Pine should deduct as a business expense on his tax return (assuming, of course, that he even reports this income) and not charge clients for.

I spoke with Pine, who said, "My wife told me my hugs were going to get me in trouble, and I guess they did." He said, however, that whether or not he expected to get any hugs from Harris "didn't enter into" his decision to raise his prices; rather, he simply decided to charge a more realistic rate. Whatever the reason for the increase, he says that "I really should have told her" explicitly instead of simply issuing a bill based on a higher hourly rate.

Now, as for those hugs. Pine claims that he always asks his clients, saying, "Would you care to exchange some energy?" Harris disputes this, however, and remembers no such question; her memory is that Pine would just hold out his arms and say something like, "Let me have a hug– you know, it's that great exchange of energy."

I asked whether he asked male clients whether they'd like to "exchange energy" with him, and he said that he does.

"Do any ever say yes?" I asked. Yes, he replied, a few do; and whenever someone, male or female, declines, he respects their wishes.

I hope that in the future he'll confine this kind of "energy exchange" to his wife and other friends– and skip it entirely with clients.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.