How to Find a Plumber Who Won’t Rip You Off

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I am not a plumber. In fact, I’m not very handy around the house at all. If I can’t fix something with a hammer or screwdriver I prefer to pay somebody else to do the work.

So I decided to get a professional to reroute and install new plumbing hardware during our recent kitchen remodeling adventure. Here were my three estimates…

  • Plumber 1: $450
  • Plumber 2: $485
  • Plumber 3: $1,085 (after an applied 10 percent discount!)

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how the third plumber could be so much more expensive. I figured the guy must have made a math error. But there was no mistake.

Even more interesting, the first two plumbers’ estimates included new shut-off valves – and the third plumber’s didn’t! After we questioned his estimate, Plumber 3 pulled out his “price book” to bolster the veracity of his quoted price.

So what’s going on? How do guys like Plumber 3 stay in business anyway?

Not all plumbers are created equally

There are basically two types of plumbing companies: small family-owned operations, and larger corporations.

As luck would have it, I got estimates from both. It turns out that my two cheapest plumbing estimates came from small family-owned businesses that were sole proprietorships. The most expensive plumbing estimate came from a large corporation.

So why are the larger corporate plumbing companies usually so much more expensive? Believe it or not, it’s often because their plumbers work on commission, and that encourages them to oversell you on goods and services. This has turned many plumbers into salesmen, whose first priority is to grow their employer’s business as quickly as possible, rather than get your plumbing problem fixed for the lowest price possible.

But, Len, you said the corporate plumber showed his price book!

Yeah, he did, but when it comes time to comparing estimates between plumbers, price books are irrelevant.

Higher-priced plumbers love to show you “the price book” to try and convince you that’s what every plumber charges for a given repair procedure. Don’t be fooled – that book only tells you what their company charges. The reality is, every plumber has his own uniquely priced book.

Larger plumbing companies also have overhead that the smaller family-run businesses don’t – like maintaining their fleet of trucks and paying for worker’s comp insurance.

So how do these higher-priced plumbers manage to stay in business? Because their prices are so high, it only takes a couple of sales to more than make up for all the jobs they lose to savvier shoppers who do their homework.

How to find a plumber

Here are several tips to help ensure you find the right plumber at the right price…

1. When possible, get references. There’s no better endorsement for anyone than a word-of-mouth recommendation based upon someone’s personal experience. That applies to contractors of all types: electrical, plumbing, general construction, etc.

2. Get a minimum of three estimates. Knowledge is power, so always get at least three estimates before agreeing to have any work done. Otherwise, you may end up paying a lot more than you need to.

3. Stay away from plumbers who advertise on radio and television. Those ads cost big money. You’ll ultimately end up paying for that aggressive marketing.

4. Focus your search on small family-owned plumbing businesses. Besides lower overhead, smaller family-owned plumbers generally don’t work on commission – so you’re less likely to be oversold on services you don’t really need. And typically smaller advertising budgets mean greater dependence on personal recommendations – and added incentive to consistently provide the best service.

5. Know that not all plumbing companies are what they seem to be. When deciding who to call, be careful. Sometimes, larger plumbing corporations will feature a photo on their website or in an advertisement of some random “model family” to give the impression that their company is a small family-owned sole proprietorship.

6. Make sure your plumber has a contractor’s license. Licensed contractors are required to complete work in compliance with state-mandated procedures designed to protect us from shoddy workmanship and potential health issues resulting from improper practices. Check your state’s contractor website to verify their status – including any registered complaints and ownership details.

7. Get an itemized parts estimate from your plumber, then comparison shop. Plumbers get their parts from wholesale outlets not open to the general public, and those parts are generally not only of better quality than what you’ll find at warehouse home improvement stores, they’re often of comparable price.

8. Coupons and instant discounts don’t guarantee competitive prices. Plumbers will often try to lure you in with the promise of a price discount. In our case, the corporate plumber was still more than twice as expensive as the others even after the discount.

9. Try to avoid scheduling work on holidays and weekends. Sometimes, a plumbing emergency comes up that requires immediate attention. Just keep in mind that plumbers charge a premium for working on weekends and holidays. Always try to schedule your plumber on a weekday.

Oh, and no matter what day of the week it is, always be sure to tell your plumber to keep his price book in the truck.

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