1. "There's an old plumber's adage: 'An ounce of prevention could cost me thousands.'"
Water is the single most common cause of household damage, according to Jim Swegle, vice president of Safeco Personal Insurance, a Seattle-based homeowner's insurance company. Roughly 30% of home water damage claims results from appliance failure and another 62% from faulty plumbing systems, according to Safeco. The biggest culprits: water heaters and washing machines. And repairs are costly. Swegel says that American households with water damage spend as much as of $5,000 for each episode.
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Some easy cautionary measures can lower the risk of water damage and dramatically reduce your reliance on plumbers. First, take stock. Make a checklist of your home's water-based appliances and equipment -- water heaters, washing machines, sump pumps -- and note any wear and tear, especially on appliance parts (washing machine hoses, for example). Water heaters have a life expectancy that is hard to predict, so check yours monthly for puddling and follow all maintenance guidelines precisely. There might not be an immediately visible problem, but tanks can rust on the inside, leading to a rupture.
Hot water tanks should be replaced every ten to twelve years, says Swegel. Energy efficiency has come a long way -- replacing your tank with a more modern one will result in energy savings, he says.
2. "I'm not really a plumber."
A big chunk of the plumbing industry is made up of handymen, guys with tools and a little plumbing know-how. Although some of these Mr. Fix-Its are competent, many are not. The best way to minimize your risk is to hire a licensed plumber or at least one with a lot of experience. Licensed plumbers are required to abide by state regulations governing how the work is done and to follow local safety and building codes; they're also more likely to carry liability and worker's comp insurance. In states without licensed plumbers, your next-best bet is a licensed plumbing contractor, or at least someone who belongs to a plumbing trade organization.
"I can't just go out and say I'm a plumber -- just like I can't click my heels and say I can put in irrigation" says plumber Roy Dillard, who works with certifications at the American Backflow Prevention Association. It's important to leave the plumbing to plumbers, because they are technically protecting the public. "You don't want just anybody plugging into the water supply," he says.
Operating without a license or permit carries a lot of liability, but it happens. For instance, Dillard's neighbor recently had her water heater go out, and was charged more than $1000 for a $200 hot water heater. She filed a complaint. "Come to find out he'd had his license suspended before for price gouging," he says.
3. "My less-experienced underling will be over in a minute."
Risa Hoag, a public relations firm owner, was surprised when much of the work in a new upstairs bathroom in her Nanuet, N.Y., home was done by people other than the plumber who gave her the initial estimate. That plumber, who was hired by Hoag's contractor, visited the home and assessed the job, but was assisted by an apprentice. The assistant neglected to cap a radiator line, which eventually flooded and ruined the ceiling of the kitchen below. "No one checked his work, and we had to rip out a new ceiling," Hoag says.
It's common for plumbers to bring apprentices on a job; in fact, it's a required part of the licensing process for trainees. However, although many states require a licensed plumber to supervise an apprentice, that doesn't always happen. The best way to protect yourself is to negotiate personnel at the outset. Most plumbing companies, whether individually run or larger operations, have multiple jobs going at once, so it's common practice to send employees or even trainees along with (or instead of) the guy whose name is on the side of the truck. But you can insist that a licensed plumber or plumbing contractor be present on the job, either to work or, at the very least, to supervise.
4. "I don't do cleanup."
Plumbers will often rip up a wall to look for the source of a leak. Some will alert you to this ahead of time; others won't. Many plumbing problems are hidden, requiring walls, tiles and floor boards to be removed. And while a little demolition is hard to avoid, many plumbers won't repair the damage they've made, arguing that if the plumbing has been fixed, their work is done. "You should always consider whether the job includes the repair of the house structure and cleanup," says Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, who specializes in home plumbing engineering.
If your plumbing job is part of a renovation, chances are your general contractor will be responsible for repairing anything that was altered for access. To be certain, draw up a contract for any job (assuming it's not an emergency) stipulating that the plumber will provide a damage estimate.
When possible, hire a neatnik over a chaos machine. After the disaster in their home, Risa Hoag and her husband found a new plumber whose "truck was meticulous," Hoag says. "He showed up with his own drop cloths and covered everything: rugs, hardwood floors. He kept the holes he made to a minimum, and he was immaculate."
5. "Your favorite home-improvement store is making things more difficult."
The truck of a well-prepared service plumber should have enough basics to handle most common emergencies: copper tubing, faucet parts, replacement hoses, rubber washers, fittings and standard tools. "You want to solve as many problems as you can in the one visit, so the more-well stocked you are, the better your chances," says Billy Silk, a licensed plumber and owner of Silver Spring, Md.-based Master Plumbing & Mechanical.
Plumbers will get a feel for what products are available in their area, so they typically stock the parts for those products. However, the increase in options to homeowners has resulted in more custom and unusual parts, says Silk. "But with home and design centers, there are a lot of particular things that are out there, so a lot of times we don't have those," he says. When a customer has an odd type -- or a non-brand name -- faucet, for instance, Silk will try to locate parts for them and then do a return visit.
A good plumber should ask questions when you call the problem in, so he'll know what to bring in the first place. Requirements can change dramatically if the job is more than just a service call -- part of a renovation, for example, or at an older home. In some cases, a plumber may ask the client to obtain specialized fixtures or aesthetic items beforehand. "If the client knows what he wants and likes, or if a designer has gotten something before, he probably can get it faster than I can," Silk says.