Unless you are a do-it-yourself plumber - a club to which I do not belong - then you have, probably, felt the pain that comes from having to call for backup. Never mind the anxiety caused by water flooding onto the floor - it's the thought of the money flowing from the wallet that causes the greatest shock.
When faced with a toilet malfunction, the most I can do is jiggle the handle. That might work temporarily, but it is no long-term solution. There is only one option: Call a plumber.
I was recently faced with the dilemma of a toilet tank taking five hours to fill. I called a local plumber. Before he stepped foot in my house, I had already paid for his travel time - the time calculated was completely out of my control, as it depended on where he was traveling from - a detail that was not disclosed upfront.
Next, the service fee. This is the fee to step across the threshold. Then - time, labor and supplies to make the repairs. These estimates were within a close range among the plumbing companies that I called. I ended up selecting a plumbing company that was recommended to me.
I asked upfront whether it was more cost effective to replace the old toilet rather than repair it. They could fix it, I was told. Here's the fun part: The toilet still didn't work after the plumber left. I called the plumbing company back to complain. They were happy to come back to fix it, at a cost: another travel and service fee, plus time, labor and supplies. I insisted on a reduced price to replace the toilet with a new one. In the end, I paid at least 40% more than if I had just replaced the toilet from the start.
In a few conversations with plumbing companies, I attempted to get a definitive all-in price for the work upfront. I even stated a price I was willing to pay for the repair. Some were angry and offended that I had the nerve to dictate the price for the job.
"You don't go to a restaurant and tell the business how much you are going to pay for a steak dinner. It's just another example of how plumbers are often disrespected," said Josh Vigil of Big Boy Plumbing Supply in Lovington, New Mexico, responding to a message I posted on his Facebook page about the price of hiring a plumber.
I am confident that there are plenty of plumbers out there who are professional and guarantee their work. My question is: How can you be sure that the plumber you hire is one of them?
I set out to get answers.
"It is important to know that an estimate is not a service agreement," said Glen Blanc, the owner of Pro-Spex Home Inspection Services, which works in the Washington area. "A service agreement spells out the terms and warranty on their work."
When calling a plumber, it is customary for a consumer to ask for an estimate of the price. When an estimate is provided, remember that it is just an estimate and not a set price. The plumber can change that number once the work has been completed, while they are still in your home.
A service agreement, on the other hand, provides a consumer with details not offered in an estimate - such as, a set price for the work, an understanding of the work to be completed, and a formal understanding of any guarantees on the work. The agreement should explain the expectations from both parties: Who will dispose of the old toilet, what is the quality standard of the work, and what happens if the work does not meet expectations?
Blanc explained that if a service agreement is offered up front, then you probably have a good plumber. "Service agreements are rarely provided," Blanc warned.
I asked some plumbing companies about the high cost of hiring them. Across the board, I was told that the cost of operating a plumbing company is high: salaries, equipment, trucks, travel, training and insurance.
I also was told that, without a visual inspection of the plumbing issue, it is difficult in many situations to provide an exact price estimate, just as surgeons don't necessarily know the extent of a diagnosis until they have opened you up.
A website dedicated to providing consumers with tips on hiring plumbers - ThePlumbingInfo.com - provides examples of how the cost of hiring a plumber might change once the plumber arrives at your home.
"A prospective customer has a new kitchen sink faucet they want installed. The plumber simply has to take the old faucet off and install a new faucet, right? The plumber gets under the sink and finds that the basin nuts are fused to the faucet and they can't be removed with a normal basin wrench. The project has just become infinitely more difficult," the site says.
The Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC) recommends reviewing the plumber's license in the state or jurisdiction in which the work is being performed. Many localities require that plumbing, heating and cooling contractors be licensed to ensure that all health, safety and building codes are followed. If that's the case where you live, ask the contractor for his or her license number.
The PHCC also recommends reviewing the contractor's proof of liability and workers' compensation insurance. This is to make sure you're not liable for any accidents on your property. They also recommend contacting the Better Business Bureau to find out whether any complaints have been filed on the contractor.
Recently, the attorney general of Virginia took enforcement action against three contractors that were operating without a license. A news release issued by the attorney general's office stated that the contractors "offered contractor services to consumers, obtained money before performing those services, and failed to complete those services." Two of the contractors claimed to be licensed plumbers.
To get thoughts from plumbers on what to know when hiring a plumber, I posed a question on a Facebook page called, "Ask A Plumber." What should consumers know when hiring a plumber? I asked.
"If you feel afraid that if you don't fix what the plumber says needs to be fixed or else something extremely terrible will happen, then you are probably being sold," said Leon Bourassa, a plumber in Canada.
Bourassa explained that many plumbers are paid a commission, so they do their best to upsell. "They use fear to swing a decision toward the more expensive option," Bourassa wrote.
"A plumber should always be a plumber first, and a salesman second," said David Spaulding, president of the Plumbing Works in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. "We should be giving you different options, hopefully ones that fit your budget."
Spaulding also warned that if you try to save money by hiring a plumber as a "side job" outside of his employer, the plumber is probably not licensed. "Most plumbers are only licensed when working under their employer's master license," Spaulding said. "If they are dishonest enough to take a side job, you probably don't want them in your home anyway," Spaulding continued.
Most homeowners I talked to are resigned to the fact that they are at the mercy of the contractor. And the lesson many homeowners learn when it comes to plumbing: When you find a reliable plumber, keep them.
When an underground pipe burst at his house, Ivan Galic, a Bethesda homeowner, called his go-to plumber. "It was costly, but I picked him over others because he had done other work for us over the years," Galic said.
This article was written by Jill Chodorov Kaminsky, Special to The Washington Post.
Jill Chodorov Kaminsky is a real estate broker and writer in the Washington area.