A good plumber is upfront about their work and their prices, but not all are so honest. Some unscrupulous plumbers run scams that not only cost you money, but can also damage your plumbing system.
The most common plumbing scams aren’t always obvious, though, and it’s easy to get reeled in before you realize what’s happening. To protect your wallet and your plumbing, get familiar with the tricks of dishonest plumbers so you can stop a scam before it starts.
Dodging the Details
A responsible plumber will be happy to provide their plumbing license number, proof of insurance, and any other credentials you might ask to see to confirm their competence and legal standing. In fact, most plumbers post this information on their website, business cards, and other marketing material.
If a plumber hesitates to show you their credentials or makes excuses for why they can’t, that’s a red flag that you’re dealing with someone who’s less than honest. If the plumber provides their license number only after you dragged it out of them, it might be that the license isn’t in good standing. Check with your state’s Contractors State License Board to make sure the plumber’s license is valid.
Crooked for Cash
A plumber insisting on cash-only payment is likely up to something, especially if they aren’t willing to provide an invoice or receipt for their work. At best, a cash-only plumber is dodging taxes, but will otherwise do good work. In the worst case scenario, the plumber is uninsured or even unlicensed. If the job goes wrong, you’ll have little recourse to get the damage repaired or even get your money back.
Likewise, walk away from any plumber asking for a large up-front deposit. Disappearing with a deposit is one of the most common plumbing scams around, in large part because paying 50 percent of a job in advance sounds reasonable to many homeowners, so it’s easy for a plumber to pass off as normal.
In most states, the law prohibits a plumber from requiring any more than 10 percent of the payment upfront. Most plumbers require payment only after the work is completed to your satisfaction. Don’t buy excuses such as the plumber claiming they need the money to purchase supplies or that they’re wary because they’ve been cheated by clients before.
Plumbing systems are complex, and it’s impossible for a plumber to accurately estimate the cost of a job before inspecting the situation in person. Some do offer fixed-price deals for simple jobs, such as drain clog removals, but for anything more involved, they can only give a rough, preliminary estimate before they visit you. Any plumber giving you a firm estimate over the phone before they’ve been to your house could be hiding something. This goes double if the estimate sounds too low to be true.
Even after a home inspection, a verbal estimate isn’t enough. A plumber who won’t provide a written quote before the work begins might be setting you up to be overcharged.
A dishonest plumber might claim to be making mental notes as they look over your pipes, then leave saying they’ll put everything together into an itemized estimate and call you later. When the plumber calls, they offer a temptingly low verbal estimate and the promise of a written estimate later. The plumber then pushes you to get started right away to take advantage of that low offer.
If you fall for this plumbing scam, you’ll find the written estimate never materializes. Instead, the plumber completes the job and hands you a bill for several times the original verbal estimate. To avoid this scam, allow work to begin only after you have a written quote and a signed contract that states how much you’ll pay and when.
Practical homeowners are often happy to pay top prices for top quality materials, expecting their new plumbing to last a decade, at least. Few know exactly what kind of pipes, fittings, and other products constitute high quality, though, and that creates an opportunity for dishonest plumbers. A plumber might claim to be installing durable PEX pipes and charge accordingly. In reality, they use a cheap substitute, such as PVC pipes, and pocket the difference in price.
To make sure you get the quality you pay for, ask your plumber for a list of the parts they plan to use in your project. Take the list to a plumbing supply store or hardware store and compare prices. You can expect the plumber to make some profit, but if you’re being charged several times the cost of the product, ask your plumber why.
If the job is already done, compare the products listed on your invoice with what’s actually in your plumbing system. If the invoice lists a Kohler or American Standard PEX valve, but the valve in your shower is some other brand or material entirely, call your plumber to find out why.
Too Many Plumbers in the Kitchen
This plumbing scam is more common with complex, multi-day projects. It starts innocently enough when the plumber you signed a contract with gets started on the agreed-upon work. Soon enough, though, one or more extra people show up. Sometimes, the extra person is an assistant or apprentice doing legitimate work, and there’s nothing to worry about.
Other times, when you’ve run into a shady plumber, the extra worker is the plumber’s friend or relative who’s come by to do a few basic tasks and then charge an exorbitant rate for their work. Your originally contracted plumber will then claim that because the “assistant” is a subcontractor, they set their own rates, and there’s nothing the plumber can do about it.
To protect yourself from this scam, if any extra workers arrive, ask why they’re necessary. Make sure the cost of their work is included in your written quote. If at any point you’re not sure who’s doing what and why, get clarification before you allow the work to continue.
Many plumbers don’t have fixed hourly rates, which gives them some flexibility when charging for jobs in the wide variety of situations they encounter. This doesn’t always work in your favor, though. If you live in a well-off neighborhood, have a luxury car parked out front, or show any other signs of wealth, a plumber might assume you’ll be happy to shell out more than the average client.
As long as the work is done as promised, this type of rate-setting isn’t a scam per se, but it can still cost you big. Some plumbers charge up to double their typical rate when they think a homeowner can afford it. A little shopping around can save you here. Before you commit to one plumber, ask at least three to look over the work you need done and offer an estimate. Any rate that’s dramatically higher than the others is suspect.
High-pressure sales and scare tactics are always a sign you should walk away. Honest plumbers have no interest in bullying someone into spending money with them. Dishonest plumbers, however, sometimes use pressure to take advantage of the elderly, newly arrived immigrants or others they feel might not be aware of their rights. They might tell you your plumbing is putting your home at risk for massive damages or that your neighbors could sue you for damage to their property.
If your plumber leaves you feeling uneasy, send them away and call a reputable plumbing company to check your situation out. Insist your plumber explain why the work they’re recommending is necessary. If they claim your plumbing system poses a safety risk, they should be able to tell you exactly why and how they plan to fix it.
By checking credentials and references, getting a written estimate before work begins, and asking questions about anything you don’t understand, you can protect yourself from the most common plumbing scams. Doing your due diligence and speaking up when you feel something isn’t right goes a long way toward avoiding the damage a shady plumber can cause.