Tips & Advice: Don't Get Hosed on Home Repairs

A few months after we moved into our house, our kitchen sink sprung a leak that led to a moldy mess beneath. Ordinarily, we'd haul out our trusty old home repair book and give it a go, but this time we decided to call a plumber. The magnetic coupon on our fridge — a promotional item from a local plumbing company — made it a cinch. That was Mistake #1.

When the plumber arrived — very promptly, in a fancy custom van — I asked what happened next. He said he would give me an estimate and we'd go from there. Readers, I kid you not, the guy spent an hour writing on his notepad. Meanwhile, starting to get nervous, I looked the company up on Yelp (Mistake #2: Do this first!), only to find horrible reviews. Uh-oh.

He finally stopped scribbling and offered me my "options," which started with "The Band-Aid" and ended with what appeared to be an entirely new kitchen sink, counters and plumbing. The cheapest option, just snaking the drain, cost $500. To fix the backed-up drain and the leaky sink — which required a new washer — cost a whopping $700.

I expressed my concern about what seemed to be insanely inflated prices. "Most plumbers would charge you a house call just to look at the problem," he said with an annoyed expression. I asked if I was obligated to use the company's services after this "estimate," and he put the pressure on. I later found out he worked on commission.

I paid for the basic service through clenched teeth, feeling furious but totally helpless. The worst part? A day later, the drain pipe under the sink broke, most likely from the snaking, and flooded our basement, leading to more major plumbing work and a hassle of an insurance claim. I did, however, finally find a great plumber through my homeowner's insurance. But there are easier ways.

1. If you're moving to a new area, ask your neighbors, especially the established ones. They almost certainly know of "a guy" in the neighborhood who can handle anything from simple plumbing repairs to installing your new kitchen floor. Do this before you actually need help. For major work, make sure they're licensed and bonded.

2. Check Angie's List. This consumer-driven ratings site offers trustworthy reviews of local service companies. If you're a homeowner, it might be worth the small membership fee. Yelp is also a good resource. Also check the Better Business Bureau for negative consumer feedback about companies.

3. Ask about fees upfront. This is the mistake I will never make again. When I called that second plumber, he told me he charged a standard fee just for coming by, but that he would put that amount toward time spent on repairs. He said he'd provide me with an estimate specifically for the work needed. (He also told me I wasn't the first of his customers to be swindled by those fridge-magnet plumbers that charged the hourly rate of a solid lawyer.)

4. Don't be afraid to comparison shop. Use a site like Service Magic to find general estimates, but keep in mind that prices vary quite a bit depending on location. You can only figure out the going rate if you ask — or browse — around. For home emergencies, see Tips #1 and 2.

5. Be wary of gimmicks like fridge magnets or ads on every passing bus. If a company is spending that much on advertising, you can be sure you'll be absorbing part of their marketing costs.

6. If you find one service professional that you trust, request recommendations for service professionals in other areas. Your trusted electrician might know of a reliable, affordable landscaper.

7. When it comes to simple repairs, watch and ask questions. Our plumber showed me how to snake a drain properly along with a few other simple fixes. His reasoning? "If I help you with the small stuff, you'll remember to call me when you have a big repair."

What are your tips for finding an honest service professional?

Image: Shutterstock

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