10 Sneaky Plumber Tricks of the Trade

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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.

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson describes plumbers’ tricks of the trade you may run into, plus how to spot those tricks, find good plumbers and get value for your money. Once you’ve watched, read on for more on getting your money’s worth from plumbers.

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, 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 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.

Have you run into a plumber’s trick? Warn the rest of us about it. Post a comment below or on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Ted Bundy

    All you need to know about plumbing – Gravity … water does not flow uphill and the waste lines can get messy. So if you don’t mind getting dirty – DIY and save a bundle. Otherwise spend some time and locate a reliable unlicensed handyman who knows what he is doing. You will get the job done for 1/3 of the cost of licensed contractor.

  • sixdays

    as a plumber i agree with most of this except the payment we have a lot of customers that think they don’t have to pay for the services we have performed. Any tips for that

  • nmtonyo

    I agree with sixdays. As an honest licensed contractor & journeyman, I have found there are far more dishonest homeowners and landlords than dishonest tradespeople. I did a job for a homeowner referred by a good friend, who refused to pay my final bill, despite my offering terms. I filed a lien, but then would have had to sue to enforce it, then probably had trouble collecting my money anyway. Articles like this further the notion that dishonest tradespeople are the problem, while the real problem for honest tradespeople is getting paid for something they can’t recover-their skilled labor.
    I now collect a deposit before starting any work or purchasing any materials for job with a new client, and track time and materials carefully. When I approach the amount of the deposit, especially after changes are made to the scope of work, I stop and ask for additional deposit money, enough to complete the job. I explain all of this upfront, and refuse to deal with any property owner who has a problem establishing their credit worthiness to me.