10 Sneaky Plumber Tricks of the Trade

You shouldn’t have to dread calling a plumber. Here is how to find a good one and get the most value for your money.

Many of us hate calling a plumber for help. Most plumbers are honest professionals, but we worry that a few might try dodgy tricks to overcharge us. So just placing the phone call makes us uncomfortable.

The only way to feel good about calling the plumber is to learn:

  • What tricks you may run into.
  • How to spot those tricks.
  • How to find good plumbers and get value for your money.

Following are 10 sneaky plumber tricks of the trade. Learn to recognize them, and you should be much better equipped to find an honest pro.

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. Of course, do-it-yourselfers legally can do a lot of renovation work on their own homes — but only within limits. For example, you must use licensed professionals for structural, electrical and plumbing work.

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.

When 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.

2. Estimating a job sight unseen

How can a plumber realistically estimate a price for a job he or she hasn’t seen? 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 remember that even small jobs can be more complicated than you realize.

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

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

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.

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.

5. Showing up uninvited

Call the police if a “plumber” knocks on your door and tries to persuade you to hire him or her. This is often a tipoff 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. These businesses are likely to work with reputable plumbers.
  • 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.

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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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • I agree with @Malcom T

  • Marta

    Having just experienced dealing with an unlicensed tradesman in London, I would always go with a registered tradesman. It isn’t worth it and at least you have recourse if things go bad. He did the work without getting a quote for me to give my landlord. He eventually provided an invoice which didn’t have a VAT no, nor did it detail the parts involved, had spelling mistakes, no invoice no and no company name or person name. He started threatening to come to my house (after 2 days of non-payment) to get money but because he just fixed it without permission, I didn’t have time to get it approved by my landlord and we have dealt with him before.

  • Alan Cline

    This is a good list. The majority of plumbers are reputable professionals but there will always be a few bad apples. Don’t be afraid to ask questions before hiring anyone.

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