How to Hire a Good Plumber
LESLIE: Well, the plumbing system is something that most consumers pay very little attention to unless, of course, it breaks down.
TOM: Definitely. And when that happens, you need it fixed, you need it fixed fast and usually to stop the water from flowing where it shouldn’t be. So, even though the water could be streaming through your ceiling, how do you keep a clear head and hire a plumber that can get the job done fairly and fast?
Joining us now are two experts who know a lot about that topic. On the phone, we have Angie Hicks – she is the founder of Angie’s List, a website devoted to helping consumers find the best professionals for their projects and service needs – and Richard Trethewey, the plumbing-and-heating expert on TV’s This Old House.
ANGIE: Thanks for having me on the show.
TOM: And welcome, Richard.
RICHARD: Hey, there. How are you doing?
TOM: We’re doing well.
Richard, let’s start with you. First off, plumbers have specialties, don’t they? I mean how do you make sure you find the right guy for the particular projects that you have?
RICHARD: Well, there are good general practitioners but we also tend to see there are guys that just do remodeling. They’re used to going into these old houses and fighting their way into existing buildings. There are guys that just do commercial work and we call those “poodle kickers” because you wouldn’t ever want them to be at the residential house.
TOM: Poodle kickers?
RICHARD: Because they would quietly kick the poodle when the homeowner wasn’t looking. They’re not used to being in the …
TOM: They don’t like people.
LESLIE: The finesses.
RICHARD: They’re not used to doing it in the residential environment.
And then there are HVAC mechanical guys. So you really want to start with – “What am I trying to do? Am I trying to just repair something? Am I trying to do a full remodel? Am I trying to add a whole new mechanical system?” And find the right person.
TOM: Now, Angie, let’s go to you. It seems that many times, the need to hire a plumber is not optional. It’s more of an emergency like when a pipe breaks. Are consumers more likely to make a hiring mistake when that kind of thing happens?
ANGIE: Hiring under an emergency situation is sometimes a disaster waiting to happen. Because all too often, we are overwhelmed by the experience that we end up hiring without doing our normal due diligence. So, some of my best advice is suggesting, hey, find a plumber that you can work with before you actually need it, because emergencies happen at the darndest times.
I had an experience over the summer where I had friends visiting for the weekend and the ejector pump on my toilet went out in my basement. And unfortunately, the last thing anyone wants is to find out that their guests are plunging their toilet, you know? There’s nothing less inviting than that. And then you’re ending up scrambling to have someone come out and do that so – to get it fixed.
So, do your research ahead of time so that you’re prepared when the inevitable happens.
LESLIE: Richard, I think when it comes to hiring a plumber, there’s really some specialized questions that you need to ask. So, how is it different when you’re looking for a plumber than when asking for a different type of pro?
RICHARD: Well, I grew up with the – a sign in our office and at home that said, “The plumber protects the health of the nation.” It’s an old saying that we’ve lived by and so, with that, we come – we have this trust to bring clean water and to make sure the sewage goes away.
So there’s heavy licensure. You have to be licensed. Even becoming an apprentice nowadays is much harder. We’re also the guys that are working with gas and there’s safety issues with gas. And so, we are heavily educated because we have to be and we’re licensed. So, I think it’s – with that comes a price in order to get a good guy or girl.
TOM: Well, absolutely. And that licensing requirement – yes, let’s not leave the ladies out.
RICHARD: Thank you.
TOM: That licensing requirement really is a big commitment on your part to make that happen. And that really does protect the consumer, right?
RICHARD: That’s right. We have to – we have apprentices that have to be three years of working there, 300 or 400 hours of schooling and then they can stand for their journeyman test. And then they can go and do another year or more and get their masters. And so that’s a difficult process.
You have to work as an apprentice below real market rate and so – and even then, to really be good at it, it takes a long time to know the tricks of this – like any industry, it takes a while. Just getting your license is not enough; you still have to be in it to have the experience to do it well.
TOM: Let’s talk about the – what it costs to hire a plumber. How do plumbers charge for their services? Is it always by the hour or does it really depend on the project?
ANGIE: They can range a wide variety, whether it be garbage disposals that don’t work because we decide to put things in garbage disposals that just shouldn’t go there. Sump pumps. Sump pumps are those silent friends. You think they’re always working perfectly for you until the day they don’t and your basement’s full of water.
Clogged sinks. I mean that’s probably the most common thing we hear. And people think, “Oh, that’s a do-it-yourself kind of project. I can get some drain cleaner and fix that.” But a lot of times, you really want to call a professional and make sure that drain is cleared well so that you don’t potentially cause additional damage.
And then one of my favorites is the overflowing toilet. No one likes it when the toilet doesn’t work. So, that’s probably one of the more dreaded experiences.
LESLIE: Because so many projects for a plumbing situation really seem to be answering an emergency, Richard, is it good to have a plumber sort of in your pocket – one that you’ve got a relationship with and that you trust – prior to any of these things going wrong?
RICHARD: If you want to sleep at night – and most people have this: they have a plumber that is their plumber. And this …
LESLIE: Mm-hmm. You have a good bond with your plumber.
LESLIE: I feel like you get a good relationship.
RICHARD: Our family business has been around since 1902. We’re now dealing with fourth and fifth generations of families that we’ve maintained their plumbing and it’s sort of a trust that we have together. You want to have somebody you know, somebody you can trust that’s going to be there. And it’s better to have that relationship before the emergency because once you start dialing in the phone book at night – and people don’t know you’re not going to get the same response as you would from somebody that you already had an established relationship with.
TOM: Great advice. Richard Trethewey, the plumbing-and-heating expert on TV’s This Old House, and Angie Hicks, the founder of AngiesList.com, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit and teaching us how to find and hire a good plumber.
RICHARD: Great to see you.
TOM: And Angie, thanks so much.
ANGIE: Thank you.
LESLIE: Alright. You can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.
And for help finding a great pro to tackle your projects, visit AngiesList.com.
TOM: And Ask This Old House is brought to you by Angie’s List. Get reviews you can trust, on Angie’s List.