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.

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.

From our Solutions Center: How to quickly shop insurance

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.

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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

    • http://stp-plumbing.com Paul Avelluto

      Nice Answer.

  • 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.

  • Kathleen

    My husband is a excellent licensed, insured plumber. He doesn’t need to advertise – people recommend him all the time. He owns his own company, with two employees and a list of repeat customers. With his repeat customers he will send out a bill because they pay him. However new customers, especially from out of town he asks for payment right when the job is done. In order to sue someone in small claims court they have to reside in the county and a lot of landlords or building owners do no. If you do sue and win it is up to the business owner to find a way to collect the money and if a lawyer is involved they can hold up the collection, lien or whatever with appeals that take years. It gets to a point where you decide not to bother.

  • Lorilu

    I sympathize with the plumbers who have written about dishonest customers. But I’ve experienced more than a few dishonest tradesmen in my years of owning houses. MalcomT has a good point–no trade should be paid 50% before any work is completed.

    An elderly neighbor called a local, licensed plumber to repair her toilet. All it needed was a new flush mechanism. The plumber replaced it, leaving the parts box behind, which is how I knew what he had installed. They can be purchased for under $10 at our local hardware store. He charged this elderly lady over $350, and was done in 10 minutes. This is why people complain about tradespeople.

  • bigpinch

    As a (formerly) unlicensed, uninsured, handyman in Austin, Texas, I have a slightly different take on the situation. Forty years ago, I was a long-haired, dope-smoking, hippie carpenter associated with a group of friends in the same condition. We were good, conscientious workers and, during 15 years of home services (carpentry, electricity, plumbing, and floor treatments) no one ever complained about the quality of our work or our customer service.
    Just about all of our work was obtained through real estate agents, insurance agents, and associated contractors. We never drove around looking for roofs and driveways owned by the elderly as a way of making money. We had to have money for parts and materials, up front, because we didn’t have it, otherwise, but we always presented the homeowner with the receipts for what we bought. We weren’t bonded, our work was guaranteed on a handshake, but that was never an issue. We never had to go back to fix poor workmanship.
    So, yeah, there are things you ought to look out for: (don’t contract for labor with strangers in the aisles of big-box, home improvement stores), don’t fall for con-men stories, like: “We were just driving through your neighborhood and we have all this left-over material from a job we just finished, and I noticed that your (roof, driveway, siding, etc., etc.) could use a little work.” Most people who get “ripped off” get ripped off because they thought they were getting something for nothing.

  • http://ecofrugality.blogspot.com/ Amy Livingston

    It’s not necessarily true that homeowners “must use licensed professionals for structural, electrical and plumbing work.” It depends on where you live. In my town, this kind of work requires a permit and must pass an inspection, but that doesn’t mean an experienced DIYer can’t do it. Also, a permit is needed only for major changes–like adding a new electrical circuit. Anything that qualifies as a “repair” requires no permit and is fair game for the homeowner. My husband and I have never hired a plumber in the 7 years we’ve owned our house. We’ve cleared blocked drains, replaced a toilet and two sinks, installed new faucets and shower heads, all on our own. Likewise, we’ve changed outlets and switches and installed a bathroom fan (but we hired a pro to rewire our basement.) So not *all* plumbing and electrical jobs require a licensed professional.

  • http://stp-plumbing.com Paul Avelluto

    I agree with @Malcom T

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