Don't Pour Money Down the Drain: 10 Plumbers' Tricks

Tricks of the Trade: Plumbers

By Marilyn Lewis

I 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.

It's one of those things: The only way to feel good about it is to first learn what tricks you may run into, how to spot those tricks and how to find good plumbers and get 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 [either] 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 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, 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. You'll get an idea of what's a reasonable cost for your job by collecting several competing bids."

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.

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 persuade 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. 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 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 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.

"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," 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 below or on our Facebook page. Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free! We'll also email you a PDF of Stacy Johnson's "205 Ways to Save Money" as soon as you've subscribed. It's full of great tips that'll help you save a ton of extra cash.
Read Full Story