What you Need to Know About Hiring a Plumber

Five tips for not getting soaked.

1. It could be money down the drain. Expect a routine house call to repair a clogged drain or a leaky pipe to cost $50 to $70 an hour (rates may be higher in big cities). After-hours repairs -- evenings, weekends and holidays -- often run $80 to $100 an hour. To be sure you're getting the best price, take bids from at least three plumbers. Bids may vary by as much as 70% for the same repair, says Marc Edwards, a plumbing expert and a civil-engineering professor at Virginia Tech. And get it in writing: A plumber's written, on-site estimate should be final. Refuse to pay more if he goes over that estimate. Case in point: Helen and Perry Jambor discovered a drippy kitchen faucet and a leaky shower in their newly purchased home, in Chester, N.J. The couple called one of the first plumbers listed in the Yellow Pages. The plumber told them it would cost $500 to replace the faucet and put in a new trap and drain in the shower. The total actually charged: $900.

2. Have I got a plumber for you! Your friend's plumber may not be available. One good source of referrals is Angie's List (www.angieslist.com), an online service that lets consumers share their ratings of plumbers and other contractors. Plumbers may be more diligent if they know you'll be grading their work on the Web. Membership in Angie's List generally costs $10, plus monthly dues of $5 or $6, depending on where you live.

3. Anyone can call himself a plumber. If you're not standing in 6 feet of water, you may have time to ask for the plumber's state license number. All states issue plumbing-contractor licenses, and the licensing board can confirm a plumber's legitimacy. Yet only 24 states require journeyman certification, meaning that the plumber has passed competency exams, says Mike Massey, an expert in plumbing standards who runs the Piping Industry Progress and Education Trust fund. Ask the plumber whether he has received certification or updated training through a professional association. And beware the bait and switch. The plumber who answers the phone may sound like an old hand, but the one who arrives at your house could be an apprentice.

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4. The mess? That's your problem. Plumbers should warn you before they cut your drywall or inflict other collateral damage. If you need to make repairs to the house, get a referral for a reputable local contractor from a real estate agent or consult Angie's List.

5. You must pick your pipe. The three materials in use today are copper and its plastic counterparts, PVC and Pex. All work equally well, says a national survey of homeowners recently conducted by Virginia Tech. But if you live in an area where water is purified with unusual chemical treatments, PVC and Pex may be preferable. For example, water treatments in Sarasota, Fla., and Washington, D.C., can corrode copper pipes, but not PVC and Pex. Quiz your plumber about materials -- and don't be intimidated. The more questions you ask, the less likely you are to be rooked.