How to save on plumbing repairs

Leaking pipes won’t just run up your water bill, but can result in hundreds or even thousands of dollars in water damage to floors, walls and ceilings. Fixing running toilets and dripping faucets can cut your water bills considerably. But, how do you know when to tackle repairs yourself and when to hire a plumber? And, if you do need to hire a plumber, how do you find someone qualified to do the work at an affordable price?

Not all plumbers are created equal          

Plumbing is a trade job. Trade jobs include skilled occupations such as electricians, mechanics, welders, bricklayers and carpenters, to name a few. These skills take time and practice to learn. Many trades begin with schooling, followed by an apprenticeship with another licensed tradesman or journeyman. After some experience, a tradesman can earn status as a master tradesman. The three skill levels for plumbers are:

  • Plumber apprentices
  • Licensed plumber journeyman
  • Licensed master plumber

Some licensed plumbers focus on basic plumbing repairs and emergencies such as burst pipes, while other plumbers specialize in new installations and remodeling projects, such as kitchens and bathrooms. Keep these differences in mind when you call about clogged drains versus remodeling. You want a plumber with the right skills and experience for your plumbing repairs or remodeling project.

Plumbing labor cost

Labor costs vary according to the area in which you live. Rural areas with a low cost of living might have licensed plumbing labor rates around $50 per hour, while those in larger metropolitan areas might see rates of $150 per hour. Weekend and holiday or emergency rates can be double the regular rate, at least for the first hour. Check labor rates at a few different companies to determine what’s normal in your hometown.

DIY plumbing tasks

Some plumbing repairs are easy enough for you to tackle yourself, such as fixing dripping faucets or stopping running toilets. By doing these tasks, you can save on the high cost of labor, which is often a significant portion of any plumbing repair invoice. These simple plumbing repairs also could be done by a “handyman” or a licensed repair service company, which usually lacks licensed tradesman.

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But there’s one reason to consider hiring a plumber for these routine, non-emergency tasks: developing a relationship with a plumber whom you can call when emergencies do strike.

Skilled plumbing tasks

Many plumbing tasks definitely require a licensed tradesman, not only for his plumbing skill, but for his knowledge of local codes that may govern your project. Typical tasks that require a licensed plumbers include:

  • Leaky pipes
  • Burst pipes (such as from freezing winter temperatures)
  • Chronically backed up drain pipes or toilets throughout the house (indicating a clogged sewer line)
  • Very low (or very high) water pressure throughout the house
  • No hot water (after you check the circuit breaker or fuse box)
  • Replacement of a hot water heater
  • Remodels or additions of kitchens and bath rooms

Checklist to hire a good plumber

Due diligence is a penny-smart way to get reliable work at a price you can afford. But price shouldn’t be your only consideration. The most visible company with the lowest rate may not be the best for the job.

You might find it worthwhile to seek out smaller, family-run companies. Even if they charge a little more by the hour, you can develop an on-going relationship. Over time, this translates to quality work done right the first time, plus good service (on time, considerate and thorough), and overall the best value for your money.

When you are hiring any skilled trade, here are some issues to consider:

  • Ask for recommendations from a neighbor, another tradesman, a real estate agent or a general contractor.
  • Ask for the tradesman’s license number. Then verify the license at the Contractors’ License Reference Site or visit your state government website and search for “plumbing license.”
  • What type and how much insurance does the company carry?
  • What is the tradesman’s labor charge per hour? Question any rate that is 20% higher (or lower) than the average in your area.
  • Find out if there is a trip charge, in addition to the labor charge.
  • Ask how the company handle parts — if the plumber leaves the job to go buy parts, who pays for travel time? Or, if he needs to return the following day with the correct parts, do you incur another trip charge?
  • For larger jobs (such as remodels or replacing pipes), get at least three written estimates. For smaller jobs, phone inquiries about pricing and skills is usually sufficient to make a good hiring decision.
  • Does the plumber have the right skill level for your job? If you need to fix a running toilet, hiring a master plumber is probably overkill.
  • Do the plumbers doing your repair get paid on commission? If they do, keep in mind that they make their money by recommending more repairs, or higher-cost repairs.
  • Never hire anyone who requires payment up front and never pay in full until the job is complete.
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A word about working with commissioned plumbers: My experience left me with a $600 repair bill that didn’t include any of my original repair requests, plus suggestions to replace another item I didn’t mention. The worst part: My kitchen sink was left completely inoperable. The plumber’s excuse: “That happens sometimes when you do other work.” Needless to say, I never called the company again. I got another recommendation, and this time, I asked a lot of questions up front.

It can also be helpful to check Internet rating services, such as Yelp and Angie’s List. But use your own judgment. I once hired a company to replace my broken gas furnace, because it had repaired it 10 years before. The service was excellent and the price was competitive. Later, I came across an online review of the company found that its ratings were below average. Upon closer examination, I realized that every complaint was due to high prices for plumbing repairs, not for furnace repair or installation. Know that all reviews are not created equal and look for those that apply most closely to your own situation.

How to control costs

Before you call on one small repair, review all of the plumbing in your home for leaks and clogs. If you have several tasks to do at one time, having them done at once will save you money on trip charges.

Be as specific as possible about the plumbing repairs you need and ask about possible alternatives. Rather than just tell the plumber you have a dripping faucet, ask if he can replace the washer or cartridge in your faucet, or if you’ll need to replace the entire faucet. Ask about the cost of parts in addition to the anticipated labor charges.

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Ask for an estimate, and also require that you be notified to approve any more work before it is done, if the cost will exceed a predetermined dollar amount. This is where it helps to be more specific about the repairs you want, which may not be the same as what you actually need. This is also where a licensed, skilled professional can help you sort it out so that everyone wins.

If possible, buy the necessary parts before the plumber arrives. However, check with the plumber you plan to hire first. He or she may have a recommendation about part to buy — or avoid — or other considerations that can affect the price and quality of the work.

Remain in the room while the work is being done and ask questions. When I had a faucet replaced, I asked about different types and brands of faucets and what makes a good model or a bad model. I asked how you remove a faucet from the sink. I asked if there was anything I did to break the faucet, how long a faucet will typically last, and about the replaceable parts. When the repair was finished, the plumber went over the faucet operation with me (hot, cold and spray on/off). We also checked the operation of the dishwasher just to make sure the faucet replacement hadn’t disabled it in some way.

When I had a drain line unclogged, we talked about the length of the line before a bend was encountered. We talked about foods and habits that can cause slow drains, such as running the garbage disposal in short bursts instead of a longer period with running water to ensure a completely cleared drain that avoids buildup.

Depending on your particular repair job, these and other questions can increase your knowledge and possibly avoid a future service call. In general, asking what caused the need for the repair and how to avoid it the next time are good opening questions that put you both at ease.

Lastly, limit your need for plumbing repairs by developing habits that avoid the most common problem of clogged drains: Screen bathroom drains to catch hair, don’t pour grease down kitchen drains and use a drain cleaner every few months, even if your drains aren’t slow.

Photo by Idea Go/

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