De Minimis Non Curat Lex by John Kaufmann

Mike, the manager at my mobile home park in northern New York, tells me that two tenants need new skirting.  He offers to help them buy it.  I have an account at a mobile home parts supplier that sells at better-than-retail pricing.  I can buy a skirting kit for a regular-sized home for around $720.  Panels, j-channels, corner pieces, fasteners - everything.  The same stuff costs about $900 locally.  Mike asks if it would be OK if we buy skirting kits for these two tenants.  They will pay me back in full once they get the materials.  The idea is that they get a break on price, and we get two more homes with skirting in good repair.  He has discussed it with them, and they are both on board.

I order two skirting sets.  $703 each, $1,406 together.  Before the kits are unloaded from the truck, both tenants tell Mike that they have changed their minds, and do not want the kits.  I call the supplier.  They tell me that there is a fifteen percent restock fee.  Oi.

$703 * .15 = $105.45.  $105.45 * 2 = $210.90.  That’s just a cost of business if it happens occasionally, but I’d rather not eat it.  If I were going to waste that kind of money, I would blow it at the blackjack table, or on a good drunk.  I might even buy my wife a nice dinner.  I would not spend it on a transaction cost incurred because someone I did a favor for someone who flip-flopped.

I ask Mike to tell the tenants that they are responsible for the restocking fee.  He speaks with them, and calls me back.  “They both say no way, no how.  They say you can shove your restocking fee up your ass.”

Next time I am at the park, Mike and I go to speak with the two tenants.  We knock on the first guy’s door.  It is an older singlewide in a densely-packed section of the park.  Access to the front door is via a wooden ramp, built for a wheelchair.   A large, older woman with pale, wrinkled skin, gray hair and narrow shoulders answers the door.  “Is Allen home?”  She turns around and shouts toward the back of the home. “Allen!”  Allen is about the same age as his wife, an inch or two taller than me, and large.  He looks at Mike and says, “I aint going to talk to him”.  I turn to Mike, and ask him to wait at the bottom of the wheelchair ramp.  “He put a rock through my window.”

“Who – Mike?”

“No.  The other guy.  When he was mowing.”

I tell him that I am there to speak about the skirting kit.  I ordered it as a favor.  He returned it sua sponte.  I am not going to eat the restocking fee.  He tells me that his wife is depressed, and needs to take thirteen medications each morning.  Mike yelled at her when he rode by on the mower.  Another guy broke his window with a rock that was thrown from the mower.  He told Mike that his nephew works at Eucharist.  That should have put the whole thing to bed.  It takes some time for me to realize that “Eucharist” is the name of a hardware store, and that the nephew had said that he would get a skirting kit from there.  I bring the conversation back to the task at hand.  “I am really sorry for all of that, but we do need to charge you the restocking fee.  You can get your supplies from Eucharist if you want, but I cannot, and will not, eat that fee.”  

“Your guy has an attitude.”  “I will speak with him – but you need to pay that fee.”  “I’ll get you the money now, so long as you make your guy shake my hand.”  $120 for a handshake?  Done!  “I can do that.”  He goes back into the home, comes out with a hundred and a twenty, hands them to me, and shakes my hand.  “The fee is $105, but of course you will get credit for all of this.”  He is fifteen or twenty years older than me, but his hands are big, and his grip is strong.  We walk down the ramp, toward Mike. “Shake hands with Allen.”  Mike looks at me funny.  “Just do it, please.”  When we walk away, I ask Mike, “What is the story with the rock?”

“He has been talking about that for years.  Rick put a rock through their window when he was mowing some time before you bought the park.”

“You mean, Rick who moved out again three months ago?  The guy who moved to Texas and dated the midget woman?”

“That’s right.  Allen’s wife doesn’t like the sound of the tractor.  She yelled at me the other day, when I was mowing.”

“I hope you don’t mind playing bad cop.”

The next guy is younger.  He has a bald head and a bushy red beard.  He is as tall as me and built like a power lifter.  He looks like a guy in a weight training video that I use.  Kettlebells for strength and mass.  Looking at him, I am reminded that I am thin, unathletic, and fifty-five years old.  This time, it is the three of us, speaking on his porch.  I tell him the same story.  We bought him the skirting kit as a favor.  He agreed to pay for it, and then he refused to accept it.  I can’t eat the restock fee.  He disputes my facts.  “I never told Mike that I wanted to buy it.”  Mike disagrees.  “We spoke.  You said you wanted to replace your skirting.”  The guy clarifies.  “I never said that I wanted to buy the kit now.”  Mike disagrees again.  “You said you wanted to buy the kit!”  The guy says, “There was a miscommunication here.”  I am sympathetic to the guy’s position.  It sounds like he said that he would like to buy the kit in theory, some time, but did not say that he wanted to pull the trigger immediately.  If that is what he said, he can’t be asked to pay the fee.  I do not want to throw Mike under the bus, so I say, “All I know is that I was asked to buy a skirting kit, I bought the skirting kit, the skirting kit was refused, and now I am stuck with the restock fee.”

I don’t have much of a remedy if the guy digs in his heels.  I will be happy if I can merely retreat with dignity.  “Look – from what I can see, there was a genuine miscommunication.  It looks like I am going to eat that fee.  I will do that, but if you ever want to order materials through us again, you will have to pay it now.  We can help you get stuff at below retail prices.  Your call.”  To my surprise, he apologizes for the miscommunication, and agrees to cough up the fee.  His hand feels like a catcher’s mitt lined with iron when we shake.  He includes the extra fee in his next lot rent payment.

John Kaufmann is a mobile home park owner who lives in southern New York State.  His writing has been published in Adelaide Journal, Analecta, Tax Notes, The Journal of the Taxation of Financial Products, and The Journal of Taxation of Investments.  The attached is an excerpt from a longer memoir.