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10 sneaky plumber tricks of the trade

You shouldn't have to dread calling a plumber. Here's how to find the good plumbers and get the most value for your money.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 13, 2014 11:27AM

This post comes from Marilyn Lewis at partner site Money Talks News.


Money Talks News on MSN MoneyI hate calling a plumber for help. I realize that most are probably honest professionals, but I also know that a few might try dodgy tricks to overcharge. So just placing the phone call makes me uncomfortable.


Here are 10 plumbers' tricks of the trade you may run into, plus how to spot those tricks, find good plumbers and get good value for your money.


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. One exception: Do-it-yourselfers often may do construction on their own homes. "But they must use licensed professionals for structural, electrical and plumbing work," MSN Real Estate says.


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. Banks won't lend money on homes with work done illegally.


Still not convinced? Here's what the Magnolia Voice, a neighborhood newspaper in Seattle, says:

Of the major trades, only two are required by law for the individual to be licensed: electricians and plumbers, according to (plumber Evan) Conklin. Why? Because shoddy work by any of these two trades can kill you. Think about an improperly vented hot water tank powered by natural gas. In no time you have a home filled with deadly fumes.

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.


"A contractor also needs two kinds of insurance: liability, to compensate you if the work fails, and workers’ compensation insurance, in case someone is injured on the job," MSN Real Estate says.


2. Estimating a job sight unseen

How can a plumber realistically estimate his price for a job he hasn't seen? He can't. 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 even small jobs can be more complicated than you realize.


Here's what to expect from a reputable plumber, according to Atomic Plumbing, a Virginia company:

A plumber will come to your home and talk to you about your needs and expectations. Then the contractor will perform a visual inspection to determine the scope of the project. This should be followed up by a written quote detailing all of the plumbing services required and the associated costs. The plumber will hopefully walk you through the quote and discuss any payment options.

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. 


But even newly minted plumbers can charge $35 an hour after a four- or five-year apprenticeship, according to Oregon Tradeswomen Inc.


Angie's List 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.

You'll get an idea of what's a reasonable cost for your job by collecting several competing bids.


Money into toilet © RubberBall/SuperStock4. 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.


Don't be overly suspicious, however. Advises Reader's Digest:

A company that has a good reputation for quality service might charge a little more up-front, but you'll save in the long run by avoiding callbacks and extra charges. Look for a company that warranties its service for up to a year for major installations or repairs.

5. Showing up uninvited

Call the police if a "plumber" knocks on your door and tries to convince you to hire him. This is often a tip-off 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. An 81-year-old Baton Rouge, La., woman told WAFB-TV that two men appeared at her home pretending to work for a local plumbing company. She saw through them and called police.


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. "They don't tolerate bad plumbers," says Reader's Digest.
  • 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 to use 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 just ask, when you order the work, 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 her to take care of other small jobs to fill out the hour.


Care2.com suggests, "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."


Another solution: Rather than paying by the hour, ask a plumber to charge you by the job, suggests Reader's Digest.


10. Pushing you to pay up 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 completely finished and you are satisfied.


More on Money Talks News:

49Comments
Mar 13, 2014 1:51PM
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So you are actually saying one need's a license to install a shower head? Sorry, no one has ever been killed by a shower head! Come on people! Use your mind for a change!
Mar 13, 2014 2:30PM
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I've had mixed results from professional plumbers.  One I hired to come and replace a leaky wax seal in my toilet base screwed up the job and I ended up replacing the whole toilet myself (decided to put in a low-flush toilet as long as I had the thing pulled out).  OTOH, they guys who came in to repair a leaking water line were prompt, efficient, and did the job right the first time.  Guess who will be getting the call back when I need to replace my main water line?
Mar 13, 2014 2:07PM
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WOW...if you follow this guide...it would take 2 weeks to get a plumber to your house to unplug your toilet...
Mar 13, 2014 2:43PM
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In 2013 I had an outside faucet capped off due to a burst pipe, the plumber charged $50. Later that year I had the faucet repaired, the parts were $38 and the plumber charged $175 for labor. This year the same faucet's pipe burst again and I called another plumber and they wanted $65 to cap it off (same company charged me almost $300 to replace a kitchen faucet). I went to Lowes, the part was 39 cents plus tax and it took me less than 15 minutes to cap the pipe off. I needed to replace a water heater last year and the same plumber said his labor charge would be the same price as whatever price I paid for the water heater. I finally ordered a new water heater from Lowes, they wanted $189 labor to install the water heater. I will be doing the work myself, because it is only a matter of connecting two pipes and one electrical connection. So, all total I dealt with 3 plumbers in my area, Cumberland Co., TN & all of them are rip offs, yet they are continually being given business licenses to operate in my county. We have he same problem here with electricians and rip off automotive repair shops.


Mar 13, 2014 2:15PM
Mar 13, 2014 2:31PM
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"But if your job is a small one and the plumber finishes before the hour is up, ask her to take care of other small jobs to fill out the hour."  Her?
Mar 13, 2014 2:34PM
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You can get information online to fix or replace just about anything in your home or on your car so if you want to.... go for it...... Just be more than a little careful if it is electrical because one slip and you might be DOA.
Mar 13, 2014 2:20PM
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Get a home repair manual, and try to diagnose the problem yourself before calling a plumber.  Some problems can be simple enough for you to handle yourself.  Also be careful what you put down the drains.  I had a friend who used to flush her dental floss down the toilet-he had to pay big bucks to get the wad of floss removed!
Mar 13, 2014 4:33PM
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Just hire the people hanging around Home Depot or Lowe's, they seem to be able to do a thousand and one things: English optional.....:)
Mar 13, 2014 6:07PM
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This past Christmas Eve, our furnace was blocked with soot and the flame front was flashing outside the combustion chamber, to the outside of the chamber walls itself. I called the man who installed the furnace, and this gentleman made a emergency late afternoon service call on Christmas Eve, 2013.

The best of service and help, on an emergency situation, that I did not know how to repair and literally on the worst possible day of the year. His charges were almost standard charges here at $75/hour.

I thanked the gentleman and gladly paid him. And I was in a mess on Christmas Eve and it was cold.

What more could anyone ask.

Our old Maytag washers, timer broke, and I tried to get a new timer, at all parts depots that I could find. One man, the local owner of a Maytag applicance store here, willingly tried to help me out and fix my old machine. Parts NLA. I bought a new Maytag washer from this man.

Mar 13, 2014 5:26PM
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Beware of any contractor who states "I can slap that in for you". Slapping in anything will cost you extra.
Mar 13, 2014 8:00PM
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Be  aware, I needed some pluming work done on my house. I was going to have the hold thing re-piped. Plummer told me since you are going to re-pipe the house you should have copper pipe come in starting from the street all the way threw.  I agreed with him.  He had his helper clean my pipes so  I would think they were new copper pipe installed.  He charged me for new copper pipes but I caught the helper before he could finish cleaning them. I said why are you cleaning instead of putting in new pipes.? He was busted. The helper said don't tell my boss I'm only doing what I was told to do. I saved six hundred dollars just because  I notice i already had copper pipes.
Mar 13, 2014 8:36PM
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After reading all these comments...Americans are STUPID.  This country is doomed.


Mar 14, 2014 12:07PM
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Just use some of the common sense god gave you people.
Mar 14, 2014 1:31PM
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hire a hispanic. they no comprend --a  damn they can fix anything had to learn from having no mon ey. cars atrucks you name fix anything esp. if you put at least 4 to 6 m together. they really need to open more business, fully capable.
Mar 14, 2014 11:06AM
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I recently had a T connector break. We were unable to reach it as it was wedged between an I beam and the heat ducts, We called a plumber, he fixed it real quick. Two days later I didn't have any water. A pipe had froze. Turns out he had removed the insulation from the pipes coming into my mobile home to find the shut off valve. 
Mar 13, 2014 3:52PM
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Sounds like they are dealing with liberals. Since liberals know nothing about fixing anything, they are easily duped. I have never had to call a plumber because I do everything myself. You just have to have a little bit of common sense to do most repairs by yourself. Most liberals don't even know how to replace a light bulb.
Mar 13, 2014 7:41PM
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Use Angies List and don't get hosed!!!!!
Mar 13, 2014 2:36PM
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These might be called "ObummerPlumbers."

Mar 13, 2014 4:52PM
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Go to home depot, lowes or your local hardware store and research online.  i am somewhat handy and rarely call these 'professionals.'

let the next shmuck over pay.  do they ever give good advice on this site?  Oh yeah Buck Ofama LMAO

 

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