|14 bags of leaves and needles from our front yard|
Now, I try to do the minimum necessary to keep the neighbors from complaining, and it's not like we've been cited by the city or anything. But we're not sporting the most manicured yard on the block either. Which brings us to last Tuesday, when a neighbor from down the street came by to ask if he could clean up our front yard...
I negotiate for a living, and there's a dark part of me that really likes the process, regardless of the subject. My wife points out that I sometimes turn regular conversations into a negotiation, which is both sad and lame. But it happens. So my natural response to my neighbor's question of whether I'd want him to clean up the yard was, "What do you think you would charge for that?" (The key is not to make the first offer, and the reason why is not complicated: your offer may be better than what the other party would've been be happy to accept.)
So here was his response: "Thirty dollars."
I should give some more clarity here. We have a 10,000+ square foot lot, and much of this area is in the front yard that was being discussed. This seemed pretty darn low, and our neighbor speaks English with a bit of an accent, so I repeated the offer just to make sure I had heard him right: "Thirty...three-zero." He agreed, yes, thirty dollars, and I said, "Sure! I have some bags and tools you can use if you need them."
And I immediately felt like crap.
Here is some more context, just to fully paint me as the villain. Our neighbor is an older gentleman, maybe in his sixties. He is of Latino descent, and speaks English with a bit of an accent, and he is one of those impossibly nice, always smiling people. He's a little guy, around five foot six, and as I looked out the window his age was showing a bit while he was slowly crouching down to put leaves and needles into garbage bags, all in the heat of an Arizona summer.
I am a bad person.
After a few hours he was ready to leave and he said he'd come back to finish the next day. In my guilt I handed him over the $30 and thanked him, and he said he'd see us tomorrow.
But he didn't show the next day. Or the next. And then I thought, "Hmmm, maybe our neighbor is an evil genius who's going home to home, negotiating low prices for half-done yardwork, pocketing the cash, and counting on middle-class guilt to keep anyone from confronting an old man about it. If confronted, he could simply claim his mind wasn't what it used to be, and he'd be happy to finish the job, but his old joints are aching due to the arthritis..." (Note to self: remember this for a side hustle in old age.)
The Triumphant Return...
After three days, I had resigned myself to ironically having to actually work in the yard after paying someone else to do it, as there were piles of needles and leaves all over, just waiting for a storm to redistribute them over the property. But like our Lord and Savior, on the third day our neighbor returned and we were, at last, saved. Saved from the painful sting of yard work.
I went outside and there was our neighbor, on his hands and knees, gently scraping the rocks underneath a tree with his little metal rake. Right away, he commented on how much work all this was: much more than he originally anticipated. And looking at him clean our yard, I caved: I agreed it was a lot of work...and we'd give him double the money.
This is an obviously bad tactic: in a distributive or "fixed" negotiation, you should never improve the other party's position (a.k.a. "negotiating with yourself"). You should always make the other party state & improve their own position. But I felt bad. He's...old, like my grandpa...and working in the heat in his little straw hat...and...he's old! Like Jack Donaghy negotiating with his infant's nanny, I'd let my emotions get the best of me, and paid twice what we likely could have paid for the same services, without the other party even having to actually ask for more money.
He rang the doorbell later that day, having done a pretty good if not perfect job, and I handed him the extra money and said "Thanks, the yard looks great." I'm not sure who really got the better end of the deal because, well, I haven't paid for landscaping before and I'm not entirely sure he actually does this sort of thing as a regular side hustle or not. Our neighbor seemed happy with the whole thing but who knows; the guy's always smiling so there's no telling.
There are a few ways I can choose to feel about this whole experience. One lesson is that I should just embrace the fact that I don't need to maintain my lawn regularly, and to just do the minimum necessary to avoid citations from the city and cold stares from the neighbors.
Or, maybe the lesson is that negotiations like this aren't really fixed. There is more at play than simply negotiating for the best value services at the lowest possible price: like our relationships with the people in our neighborhood and the feeling of paying a fair price for good work.
Or, the lesson might be that letting emotions like guilt into negotiations isn't going to help your bottom line, and that in a free market we all need to advocate for our own positions.
Or, maybe the lesson is that I need to either come to terms with the fact that we should outsource our yard work at a price we can live with, or learn how to find pleasure in maintaining our property.
Maybe there isn't any lesson. But the yard looks nice for once and my neighbor made a few bucks and while I feel like a bit of a sucker, I don't feel guilty, and that's probably good enough.