Why? Because electricians can pretty much charge whatever they want—and if you don’t bother getting multiple bids, you’re likely to give the first electrician you talk to whatever he wants.
A partnership between the SF Chronicle and the non-profit Consumer Checkbook.org periodically does shopping investigations, rounding up, say a range of auto insurance rates and publishing the results. (By the way, in that situation, auto insurance policies with identical coverage ranged from $1,722 to $3,651 a year in California.)
In the latest investigation, researchers called various electricians in the Bay Area and asked them how much it would cost to handle various jobs. What did they find? A HUGE difference in quotes. To install a ceiling fan, the average quote for the job was $302, but the spectrum of prices quoted was all over the map, ranging from $135 to $800. These prices are strictly for the labor and installation; the customer would be supplying the actual fan.
So where does that $800 come from? Who knows? My guess is that it was one of those large corporations—like the rip-off plumber encountered by Len Penzo—in which the customer is paying for a middleman and lots of overhead, and in which the big upsell is standard practice.
But if that $800 quote was the first and only one you requested, you wouldn’t know any better. The moral, as if you didn’t know it already, is that there’s a reason you must shop around.