For pool builders, the question of how to handle low-ball bids from competitors has come up many times. There’s one solution I’ve heard from marketing consultants that I always thought was a great idea.

But last week I was on the homeowner end of that exact sales technique, and I now have strong opinions about what not to do.

Recently, I decided to buy automatic sprinklers. The shape of my lawn makes it extremely hard to water, and I resolved to spend the money for a better quality of life. 

My first bid was for $800 from the gardener who works in my neighborhood. He said the job required two valves, and that he could tunnel underneath my driveway.

The second bid was well over double the first — $2,150 — and called for three valves. But the salesman agreed that going underneath the driveway would be fine. When I mentioned the $800 quote, he laughed. “You’ll get thin PVC and a lot of plastic,” he said. “I only use Rainbird.” He then explained why Rainbird’s products are the best.

It sounded good, and I was leaning toward hiring the guy … until my next meeting. “Three valves?” The salesman scoffed. “This job requires four, maybe five. And no way on the tunneling. I need to break open the perimeter of your driveway.” As far as materials, he used Toro, and went into detail about why it was better. Total price: $2,500.

By now I was a bit bewildered and unsure of what to do. I thought of pool customers and how daunting it must be to hear conflicting information when there’s many thousands of dollars involved. But I continued, determined to find the best fit.

The man from the fourth company only added to my confusion. He explained that I needed new plumbing, and without it the job would take six valves. But for $2,900 I could have a main line installed along with the sprinkler system.

I almost stopped there, but a friendly salesman at my local nursery recommended “the very best sprinkler company in Los Angeles.”

One more consultation won’t kill me, I thought. And if the guy is kicking some cash back to the store employee, well that’s just good business.

When the man came over, I told him I was intimidated and confused by all the bids. “Why don’t we try this,” he said. “I’ll pull out of the competition completely. You show me the bids, and I’ll advise you on which companies seem reputable.”

I remembered articles in Pool & Spa News where we recommended this very approach when dealing with low-ball bids. I needed a friend in this process, and eagerly agreed to his offer.

Half an hour later, I regretted it. The man attacked all the other bids, implied that only he could do the job properly, and broke his promise to remove himself from competition. My “friend’s” price, which he vigorously defended, was $3,800.

At that moment I decided to forget the whole thing. I have no idea who to trust anymore, and would rather save the money and water by hand.

I have a hunch that many pool customers have had experiences identical to mine. This magazine has advised readers, when dealing with low-ball offers, to tell a consumer they will pull out of the bidding process and act as a consultant. The logic is that, once trust is built, often the homeowner will give you the job. I will never print that suggestion again without following it up with a warning to keep your word.

Buying a pool is so daunting, so stressful, that the last thing consumers need is to wonder whether the contractor is on their side.