Leaky Pipes or Leaky Wallet: 5 Tricks of Plumbers

Don't get ripped off by substandard plumbers! (Photo: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com/Flickr)Chances are you need a plumber in your life on a regular basis. Plumbers not only take care of common household repairs like leaky pipes and clogged drains, but some are also responsible for maintaining heating and cooling systems. Some specialize in commercial or residential projects, or in a particular type of plumbing application, such as natural gas lines or fire suppression systems. While the majority of plumbers are reputable, the plumbing industry has its fair share of sub-standard contractors who employ shady business practices. Here are the most common problems and recommended cures to prevent a leaky wallet.

Trick #1: Inaccurate Estimates

“Inaccurate estimates are the most common way a plumber can get more money out of you,” says plumber Dave Buteau of OnDemand Plumbing located in Concord, New Hampshire. He admits, “The hardest part of the job is convincing a potential customer that a low-ball quote is probably not an accurate reflection of the work involved.” Buteau says he charges flat-rate fees for standard work and gets calls regularly from people complaining about plumbers who quote them the lowest price, but end up charging twice as much for “additional work” in the long run.

Cure: Unless you’ve got an emergency situation, take the time to get several quotes and make sure the scope of services is clearly outlined, so you aren’t comparing apples to oranges. Get clarification if a contract is not clearly spelled out, and don’t be shy about asking a plumber why a price is higher (or lower) than everyone else’s price. Most of the time, quotes at extreme ends reflect inaccurate estimations of labor time.


Trick #2: Sending in Extra Workers

Next on the list, Dave states, “Is the shady practice of sending in two or more people to do the job, when all that’s really needed is one plumber.”  

“If a plumber is training an apprentice, that’s one thing,” he adds, “but you shouldn’t be charged extra if the job only requires one person to do the work.” Some plumbers offer very low hourly rates, fooling the customer into thinking they’re getting work done for a bargain. Dave warns, “In the long run, the customer ends up paying higher hourly standard rates than a reputable plumber quoted them originally.”


Cure: Ask how many plumbers will be on the job, or if an apprentice will be present, and if any additional fees will be charged. An apprentice should always be supervised by a licensed plumber and their work should be inspected. Also, common sense dictates need – if you’re having a sink or faucet replaced, it’s certainly not a job requiring more than one plumber. If you’re plumbing a brand new home, that’s a big job and typically more than one plumber will be on the premises to get the work done in a timely manner. 


Trick #3: Bait and Switch

Plumbers can easily sway an unknowing customer into purchasing more expensive products (such as heating/hot water appliances) with over-charging for parts, use of sub-standard materials, or the infamous “bait and switch.” Likewise, they can switch out high grade materials for a lower grade, increasing profit margins without the customer being aware of the short-change in goods. 


Cure: Find out what kind of materials your plumber intends to use and list it in the contract or service order; that way, you’ll be able to hold him accountable if future problems show up. Compare prices of materials at local plumbing suppliers or hardware stores. Most plumbing supplies to complete household repairs cost little – such as washers, gaskets, and O-rings – so you should watch out for exorbitant material fees. While you should allow your plumber a slight mark-up to cover his overhead and operating expenses, stay away companies which consistently charge more than ten to fifteen percent more than the cost of materials.    


Trick #4: High Cost for the First Hour of Labor

Standard hourly visits are expensive for the first hour of labor, even if it takes only ten minutes to fix a simple problem.  


Cure: While you can’t fault a plumber for charging a minimum labor charge to cover his time and travel, you can take advantage of that full hour of labor you’re paying for by having him resolve any small problems or perform routine maintenance tasks to get your money’s worth. 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.


Trick #5: Markups in Affluent Neighborhoods

Live in an affluent neighborhood? Expect a markup on pricing from plumbers who will think they can get more out of you.  


Cure: Do your homework – call around and get quotes from plumbers based in not-so-affluent towns. Often their prices will be more reasonable and they’ll appreciate the increased business.   Caveat: To make sure they won’t charge for extra travel time, keep the commute time down – if they have to travel more than an hour to get to you, expect that to be reflected in the quote.


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