Many of us hate calling a plumber for help. Most plumbers are honest professionals, but we worry that a few might try dodgy tricks to overcharge us. So just placing the phone call makes us uncomfortable.
The only way to feel good about calling the plumber is to learn:
- What tricks you may run into.
- How to spot those tricks.
- How to find good plumbers and get value for your money.
Following are 10 sneaky plumber tricks of the trade. Learn to recognize them, and you should be much better equipped to find an honest pro.
1. Working unlicensed and uninsured
Unlicensed and uninsured tradespeople usually charge less. But you’re taking a big risk hiring them.
Most cities require homeowners to use licensed and insured contractors, even when you don’t need a permit. Of course, do-it-yourselfers legally can do a lot of renovation work on their own homes — but only within limits. For example, you must use licensed professionals for structural, electrical and plumbing work.
With unlicensed tradespeople, there’s nowhere to turn if the work is poorly done. A building inspector can require you to tear out the job and do it again.
When hiring a plumber, ask to see identification, a state license and proof of current insurance. To check licensing and insurance credentials, call your state’s licensing department and state insurance commissioner.
2. Estimating a job sight unseen
How can a plumber realistically estimate a price for a job he or she hasn’t seen? Don’t accept a quote without an in-person inspection. And get it in writing.
While plumbers can’t quote a price without seeing the job, they can tell you their hourly rate and if they have a minimum charge. They can also give you a ballpark idea of the time involved on certain small, predictable jobs — installing a new shower head or clearing a plugged kitchen sink, for example.
But remember that even small jobs can be more complicated than you realize.
3. Lowballing the bid
A surprisingly cheap bid should make your antennae perk up. Something’s probably wrong.
Plumbing is notoriously expensive and fees can vary widely, so this is something that’s hard to judge. “In Southern California, where I am located, the cost of (fixing) a drain clog ranges from $75 to $250 depending on who you call,” writes plumber Aaron Stickley at About.com.
You’ll get an idea of what’s a reasonable cost for your job by collecting several competing bids.
Angie’s List, which charges a fee to access reviews of local businesses and professionals, says:
A common plumbing scam is to give a low estimate that doesn’t account for all of the labor needed. You will then need to pay for the additional labor before the plumber finishes the job, putting you in a tough situation.
4. Padding the estimate
Another approach is to pump up the bid with inflated prices and unnecessary items. You can spot jacked-up prices by getting several competing estimates.
5. Showing up uninvited
Call the police if a “plumber” knocks on your door and tries to persuade you to hire him or her. This is often a tipoff to fraud or to a burglar checking out your home’s vulnerabilities.
Plenty of people — elderly homeowners in particular — are targeted by con artists with a good line of patter.
Don’t invite anyone into your home whom you have not first checked out. Find trustworthy plumbers by collecting recommendations from:
- Friends and colleagues. They’re best, since you know them and can trust their judgment.
- Reviews. Good sources include Angie’s List (paid subscription) and Yelp (free).
- Plumbers supply or plumbing fixture store. These businesses are likely to work with reputable plumbers.
- The Better Business Bureau. Use the BBB for finding complaints, BBB alerts, enforcement actions and companies with low grades. The BBB’s high grades are less useful, says Consumer Reports.
- A Web search. Search a company’s name (look up the correct name and spelling) in quotes and add words like “fraud,” “review” or “complaint” to the search.
6. Using bait-and-switch tactics
Bait-and-switch is a deceptive marketing practice: A company advertises one product or service and then tries substituting something else, or an inferior version.
When you obtain bids, get the make and model of parts or equipment included, to compare with the final product.
7. Pushing you for cash
A plumber may ask you to pay under the table in cash and forgo a receipt, maybe with the offer of a discounted price. It’s a sign he’s cheating on his taxes. It’s your decision, of course, but how fair is this to the rest of the taxpayers? Also, a worker who is dishonest in one area may well be dishonest in others.
Whatever you do, get a written receipt for the work done in case something goes wrong and also for possibly deducting the work at tax time. If a plumber won’t provide a receipt, find another plumber.
8. Bringing in extra workers
Occasionally, a plumbing company may send out more workers than are needed for your job. It’s a way of charging extra for a one-person job.
If your job is a complex one, a second plumber may truly be justified. So when you order the work, ask how many plumbers will be coming, how long the work should take, the hourly rate charged and any other fees.
9. Charging high rates for the first hour
Many service providers have a minimum charge for the first hour on the job. Nothing wrong with that. It takes them time and money to get out the door.
But if your job is a small one and the plumber finishes before the hour is up, ask him or her to take care of other small jobs to fill out the hour.
“Ask him to replace washers, gaskets or O-rings, tighten faucet stems or other small tasks around the home, or ask him for a quick inspection so you’ll be able to identify where wear and tear might indicate future problems will develop,” Care2.com suggests.
Another solution: Rather than paying by the hour, ask a plumber to charge you by the job.
10. Pushing you to pay before the work is done
It’s reasonable for a plumber to ask for a down payment of up to half of the estimate to cover parts and give assurance that you’ll pay up.
It’s not reasonable to ask you to pay the full bill before the job is finished and you are satisfied.
Have you run into a plumber’s trick? Warn the rest of us about it. Post a comment in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.