Down the
Drain

written by
Mark A. Bush

Don’t pay for unnecessary work and materials. Read on for advice on hiring a professional, honest and reliable plumber.

Picture this: A technician is hired to fix a leaky faucet or a clogged toilet, and suddenly what was supposed to be a simple, quick repair turns into a job costing thousands of dollars and dozens of hours. Who hasn’t heard of this horror story?

Of course, technicians do sometimes come across legitimate, unexpected problems when performing routine repairs, but unfortunately there are other instances where a sudden jump in cost and time is unwarranted.

An increase in services and cost could be the result of a commission-paid plumber eager to pad his paycheck. A customer might be without any plumbing experience and at the mercy of “the expert.” If an expert says something is necessary, most of us will follow the expert’s advice. (This is true when it comes to any service technician in any industry, but plumbing in particular has a poor reputation for it.) The bill can also increase if the customer is advised to add unnecessary services or more costly options to a basic job, or if the technician is not motivated to finish in a timely manner.

It’s a sensitive topic.  Many service technicians are out working hard, doing their best to be honest in their assessment of the problem at hand, but there are enough technicians who are not, and that is why the issue needs to be addressed.

Consumers can be sure they’re working with an honest technician by by considering how they are paid, which is usually one of two ways. The first is commission-based, which is when the plumber gets paid a commission percentage based on the total price of a job that they complete. The other is hourly pay, when a company pays employees for hours worked.

Commission-Based Plumbers
Since commission-based plumbers are paid a percentage of how much they “sell” to their clients, this may naturally encourage the plumber to focus more on the “sales” aspect of the job, as opposed to providing the best plumbing services they have to offer. In some cases, you may also find that commission-based plumbers will push products or services not required or needed to complete the original job, also known as an “upsell” or “add-on” to push the total price of the job up, resulting in a bigger payout for them. Since these plumbers are not paid for things like travel time or estimates, it’s not surprising that they would try to make up for unpaid time worked. For example, a simple replacement of a thermocouple on a water heater yields less money than a complete replacement of the water heater. This would potentially be a difference of several hundred or even a couple thousand dollars more than what was really necessary.

When you go to the doctor, would you rather the doctor focus on treating your ailment, or on how much he’ll get paid for performing the work?

Hourly-Wage-Based Plumbers
In contrast to a commission-based plumber, hourly-based plumbers get paid a set rate per hour for all work. They are paid from the minute they are on the clock to the minute they punch out, whether they are providing an estimate that may not get accepted or driving from one job location to the next. In this case, the plumber is less likely to try and “upsell” you and instead focus on simply providing the best service possible. They know what the job requires, and they work until it is completed to the best of their ability. An hourly paid plumber won’t feel like they need to rush through a job, as rushing will not yield another or larger payout. Also, with each job billed to the client at an hourly rate with each part itemized, it is easier for the client to see exactly where the money for the job went (parts/labor).

Flat-Rate Pricing
Generally, the public is paranoid about calling a plumber from the phone book or a listing online, and for good reason. The average costs of plumbing services have gone up dramatically, way beyond the cost of inflation, primarily because of flat-rate pricing. Flat-rate pricing for service and repair work is intentionally designed to dramatically increase the consumers’ cost and the contractors’ profit.

Increasing profit is not a new business idea. What is new is how these costs are hidden from the customer until it is too late to do anything about it. This results in a total disregard for the traditional practice of truthfulness and fairness.

By not having an hourly rate, the flat-rate plumber can mask the higher price of both labor and material until it is too late for the customer to find another option. With no hourly rate, the consumer cannot price shop. Therefore, the cost of the job could not possibly be known until the plumber has entered the property, racked up charges such as a “show up fee,” or a “diagnostic fee,” or even a “travel fee” (typically $100 to $125 each). Only then does the customer know the “flat rate” cost of the job. After the customer takes time off work, waits for the technician to show up, and has committed to the above minimum fee, only then is the customer hit with the final, inflated cost. The customer is trapped, as he now must accept the contract price, pay the $100 -$125 for . . . nothing really—or go back to searching for and scheduling another unknown plumber. Neither option makes the customer happy.

Unfortunately, the pride of being a professional plumber is really lacking in today’s market. Turnover is high within the flat-rate service shops due to burn-out from long hours and elevated stress.

Because of poor experiences, like the one described above, property owners rarely use the same plumber twice, and so larger ads are necessary. Full-page plumbing ads are common in the phone book, and they are costly. There isn’t much left for payroll with such expensive advertisements, and who makes up for that money?

 You guessed it—the consumer.

What is Fair?
The question then is, what is fair? The consumer should pay for what they get, and they should get what they pay for—no more and no less. Accordingly, the plumber should get paid for their time and their materials—no more and no less.

In our opinion, time and materials is the best way to go with repair work, if you want a fair deal for both consumer and plumber.

Want more help? Here is what to look for when selecting a plumber:

Get a personal referral. Nothing is better than a personal referral to a plumbing company that has proven results. When you get a personal referral, the odds that you will receive better service go up tremendously. Ask for references from the plumbing company as well, and then check them out. Don’t rely on finding a plumbing company from print ads, especially the large ads like in the yellow pages or local newspapers. Remember, companies with big advertising budgets inevitably pass those costs on to the consumer.

Hourly Based. Use a plumber that is paid by the hour. Most hourly shops do have a minimum charge to cover the cost of getting a plumber to your property, but it is a reasonable amount of about one or one-and-a-half hours. If the repair only takes forty minutes, you have the right to keep the plumber there to do other things for the minimum time charged, like checking other plumbing fixtures or the water heater. The only additional cost would be if extra materials are used, which should be documented on your final invoice.

Online Reputation. Check out their website and online presence, including online review sites. You want to look for a company that has a solid reputation and excellent ratings.

Check for a License. Make sure the company that you are working with has the proper licenses and is in good standing with the licensing board.

Liability Insurance. Plumbing companies are required by law to carry the appropriate insurances. This includes both liability and workers’ compensation to protect you and the plumber if he or she is injured on the job.

Warranty. Ask about the company’s warranty policy. You want to choose a company with enough confidence, skill, and honesty to warranty their work. While mistakes happen, a true professional does not charge the customer for his or her mistakes.

Do your homework, get a personal referral, and look for a plumbing company that is fair and upfront about their costs so you know exactly what to expect.

Mark A. Bush is the Quality Assurance Director at R&L Plumbing (www.rlplumbingsanfrancisco.com) in San Francisco. He can be reached at mark@rlplumbing.com.