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Plumbers (From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2015)
Go to Updated Ratings of 141 Bay Area Plumbers



At the time of our last full, published article, 27 of the 139 plumbing outfits evaluated on our Ratings Tables were rated “superior” overall by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers. But for other companies, too many customer comments include words like “overcharged,” “unprofessional,” “incompetent,” “rude,” “messy,” “no-show,” and “dishonest.” Some companies were rated “superior” by fewer than half of their surveyed customers. 

The companies vary not only in quality of service, but also in price. When we shopped for exactly the same routine jobs, some companies charged more than twice as much as others. For example, to supply and install an InsinkErator Premier Badger 5 garbage disposer, prices quoted by area companies to our mystery shoppers ranged from $200 to $600. And to install a Bradford White model M4 5036 hot water heater, prices ranged from $1,000 to $2,600. 

Fortunately, you can hire a lower priced plumber who provides top-quality service—there is no relationship between price and quality. The ratings of plumbing outfits on our Ratings Tables will steer you to plumbers who do fantastic work but won’t drain your wallet. 

If you need repairs, explain over the phone exactly what’s wrong and ask the company how it computes its charges. If possible, obtain a price quote over the phone. Confirm this information with the plumber upon arrival. 

For installation and remodeling jobs, be sure to get multiple bids. On jobs where your first quote is $5,000, you are likely to save at least $500—and possibly $1,000 or more—by getting a few more quotes. Get a fixed-price contract that specifies— 

  • Exactly what will be done 
  • Makes and model numbers of all fixtures and appliances the plumber supplies 
  • Type of pipe to be used 
  • Location of fixtures and where pipes will run 
  • Who’s responsible for breaking up the floor, cutting holes in walls, patching floor and walls, hanging sinks, performing carpentry, and hauling away debris 
  • What permits the company will secure 
  • When work is to begin and approximately how long it will take 
  • Portion of contract price you can withhold until job is completed 
  • Any warranties 

Plumbing is seldom exciting. It works fine for years, faithfully filling, flowing, and flushing. But when a pipe leaks water through your kitchen ceiling, the excitement may become more than you can stand. 

Fortunately, we’ve found dozens of excellent plumbing outfits in the area that can help—and many of the companies that rate best for the quality of their work also are among the lowest in price. But, as you’d expect, not all plumbers are up to the task: Some charge very high prices or supplement—rather than solve—their customers’ plumbing woes. 

Finding a First-Class Plumber 

Our Ratings Tables report our evaluation of Bay Area plumbing outfits. Here’s a rundown of the information we provide. 

Ratings from Customers 

Our Ratings Tables report ratings from area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) for plumbing companies that received 10 or more ratings on our surveys. The table shows the percentage of each company’s surveyed customers who rated it “superior” (as opposed to “adequate” or “inferior”) on several questions: “overall performance quality,” “doing work properly,” “starting and completing work promptly,” and “letting you know cost early.” Our Ratings Tables also report the percent of surveyed customers who rated each company “adequate” or “superior” (as opposed to “inferior”) for “overall performance.” (Click here for further description of our customer survey and other research methods.) 

Many of the companies received a high percentage of favorable ratings. For example, at the time of our last full, published article, 27 were rated “superior” overall by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers. But other companies were rated “superior” by fewer than half of their surveyed customers. For these companies, customer reviews frequently include words like “overcharged,” “unprofessional,” “incompetent,” “rude,” “messy,” “no-show,” and “dishonest.” 

Complaint Records 

For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from local Better Business Bureaus (BBB) for a recent three-year period and complaint rates relative to the volume of work companies do. For more information on reported complaint counts and rates, click here

How Much They Charge 

After you have identified high-quality, reliable companies, you need to consider price. To compare companies’ prices, our mystery shoppers called the companies that were evaluated in our last full, published article, and requested price quotes for eight plumbing jobs; the ranges of prices quoted are shown on Table 1. We used those prices to calculate a price comparison score for each company, shown on our Ratings Tables. The scores, which are adjusted so that the average for all companies equals $100, indicate how each company’s quotes compare to the average price for all companies quoting on the same jobs. Thus, a score of $110 means a company’s quotes average 10 percent above the all-company average; a score of $90 means 10 percent below average. 

Table 1—Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Plumbers for Illustrative Installation Job
Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Plumbers for Illustrative Installation Jobs 1
Description of job Low price Average price High price
Supply and install an InsinkErator Premier Badger 5 garbage disposer $200 $314 $600
Supply and install a Toto Drake II toilet (model #CST454CEFG) $440 $704 $1,350
Supply and install a Kohler Forte kitchen faucet (model #10433CP) $223 $427 $725
Supply and install a Bradford White hot water heater (model M4 5036) $1,000 $1,531 $2,600
1 Some prices were rounded to the nearest whole dollar. For each job, companies were given additional, detailed specifications.

As you can see from Table 1, prices varied dramatically for the same work. Prices to supply and install an InsinkErator Premier Badger 5 garbage disposer ranged from $200 to $600—a difference of 300 percent. To install a Bradford White model M4 5036 hot water heater, prices ranged from $1,000 to $2,600—a difference of more than 250 percent. 

These large price differences are reflected in the price comparison scores, which range from $59 to $170. 

For medium-size or large jobs, don’t rely exclusively on our price comparison scores. Taking the time to get several bids is likely to produce substantial savings. We estimate that getting three bids instead of one for typical installation jobs saves, on average, about 15 percent. Saving $750 to $1,000 on a job is well worth arranging a few extra appointments to get estimates. 

For large remodeling jobs—a new kitchen or bathroom, for instance—getting several bids is especially critical. Not only is a large amount of money at stake, but the percentage variation in prices on such major jobs is larger than the variation on smaller installation jobs. For the plumbing work involved in a modest bathroom remodeling project, for example, you might get bids ranging from less than $7,500 to more than $15,000. Even a fraction of that difference is well worth spending a few hours to get multiple bids. (Remember that saving $1,000 is better than earning $1,000 because you don’t pay taxes on what you save.) 

If a job is large (and especially if you are unsure about whether you need it or how it should be done), let the bidders serve as your consultants. 

When comparing prices, make sure companies supply quotes on exactly the same job, using the same fixture models. If you need to consult several companies before you can determine exactly what you want done, give each company a chance to bid on your final job specifications. 

Even for small jobs, it makes sense to get multiple quotes—as long as you can do so easily by phone or email. 

Getting plumbers to visit your home to bid isn’t easy, and companies don’t always show up when promised. We suggest that you set up more visits than you need. Then, when you have enough quotes, cancel the remaining appointments. 

Our Ratings Tables also report each company’s “minimum charge for a service call,” and indicates in parentheses whether the charge covers a complete diagnosis or a specified amount of time. These charges are particularly useful if you need to hire a company for repair work that can’t be priced until the plumber has examined your problem. Some companies don’t charge for coming to your home, diagnosing the problem, and providing an estimate; others charge $90 or more to diagnose a repair problem and provide an estimate. 

How to Deal with Your Plumber 

With any company you choose, dealing wisely with the plumber procures better work and saves you money. 

Whether you need a remodeling job or repairs, if at all possible get a written price quote before work begins. Among plumbing customers we surveyed, about half received written estimates (rather than oral estimates or no estimate) in advance. Respondents who received written estimates were satisfied with their companies’ performance much more often than customers who didn’t. 

Remodeling Jobs 

  • Get a fixed-price contract. On small jobs, this may be difficult because it’s not always easy to obtain estimates by phone, and companies may not want to incur the cost of sending a plumber out for an estimate. But give it a try. Even on larger jobs, companies may argue that they have to bid high to protect themselves, and that you might get a break if you pay by the hour and the job goes quickly. We don’t buy that argument. If a company knows you’re getting several bids, it can’t take the chance of bidding high, and a fixed-price contract will spare you surprises later. With a fixed-price contract, you don’t have to monitor the company’s efficiency—although you do have to make sure it doesn’t take inappropriate shortcuts. 
  • Specify exactly what you want done. Your contract should contain full specifications. If the work is to be done on a time-and-materials basis, write up what you want, give a copy to the plumber, and keep a copy for yourself. Then explain orally what you want as well. The specifications should include: 
  • Makes and model numbers of all fixtures and appliances. Since nearly identical-looking fixtures sometimes vary in price by 100 percent, unless you are specific the company may substitute second-rate products. 
  • Type of pipe to be used. Copper pipe—which can be used for water supply lines, drainage lines, and vent lines—is extremely long-lasting but expensive. Cast-iron pipe—which can be used only for drain lines—is also extremely long-lasting but difficult to work with. If you want these materials, specify that beforehand. Otherwise, your plumber might use cheaper steel or plastic pipe. 
  • Location of fixtures and where pipes will run. Sometimes a few inches can make a big difference in the difficulty of a plumbing job. If you have not spelled out what you want (ideally in a sketch or plan), you may meet a lot of resistance when you want your sink installed just a little to the left to make room for a wastebasket. 
  • Who breaks up the floor, cuts holes in the wall, patches floor and walls, hangs the sink, performs the carpentry, hauls away debris. Do not assume any of these jobs is included if they’re not specified in your agreement. Some companies include them; others won’t. 
  • Choose fixtures with an eye to the availability of replacement parts. Fixing your faucet in a few years will cost less than replacing it. 
  • Shop around to see if you can save money by buying parts and fixtures on your own. Some plumbers won’t install customer-provided fixtures; others insist that customers provide them. A company that offers you the option of supplying parts and fixtures enables you to shop for the lowest prices. If you have a large installation or remodeling job, ask suppliers for a volume discount. 
  • If you supply your own fixtures, make sure the plumber doesn’t charge extra for labor. But be aware that the plumber won’t be responsible for the labor cost of replacing defective fixtures that you’ve supplied. 
  • Specify what permits you want the company to secure. Some homeowners do not insist on permits for several reasons: to avoid alerting the tax assessor to improvements; to save the cost of the permits and the plumber’s time securing them; or to use a cheaper unlicensed moonlighter, who may simply be unable to obtain permits. But there are strong reasons for getting a permit: It is often legally required; it buys an impartial government inspection of the finished job; and it protects you and the next owner of your home from the obligation to correct code deficiencies later discovered during an inspection of other work. We’ve even heard of gas explosion cases in which insurance claims were denied because installations had not been inspected as required by the applicable codes. 
  • Specify when work is to begin and approximately how long it is to take. 
  • Negotiate for the best possible warranty. On any remodeling job, obtain a written warranty on materials and workmanship for at least one year. (You might even be able to get one for a repair job if you explain that other companies offer them.) 
  • For a major remodeling job, request inclusion of an arbitration clause in your contract. While this request might put off some companies, a company accustomed to doing sizable jobs will see it as a possible cost-saver for both parties, should a dispute arise. 
  • Find out how much of the contract price you can withhold until the job is completed. Companies that let you withhold a substantial portion of the price of an installation job until completion indicate that they are confident they can satisfy you. And you also get leverage to prod the company to do the job right if you are dissatisfied. Such a payment arrangement also cushions the blow if the company goes under before completing the work. 
  • If you can’t get a contract, get a detailed receipt describing the job before you pay. If you must have work corrected later, this will eliminate disputes as to what the company was responsible for. 
  • If possible, pay by credit card. If you are dissatisfied with the work or a fixture, you can dispute the charge under the Fair Credit Billing Act. 

Repair Jobs 

  • Before summoning a plumber for a service call, provide an exact description of your problem. This helps the plumber bring the needed tools and parts, thus eliminating extra trips. 
  • When you call, ask the company to explain how it computes its labor rates—minimum charge and what it includes, time unit used to calculate charges (10 minutes? 15 minutes? 30 minutes?), cost per unit, etc. 
  • Let the plumber know that you are aware of the rates. This may enhance timekeeping accuracy. 
  • If you want to know exactly when a plumber will arrive, request the first service call of the day. 
  • Clear the area. You don’t want to pay a plumber $125 an hour to clean out junk from underneath your sink. 
  • Don’t let conversations with the plumber interfere with the work. While it is important to understand what the plumber is doing, there is a reasonable limit. Remember that the plumber is on the clock until he or she writes up the ticket. 
  • Make sure you’re home for the appointment. A missed appointment may not cost anything at the time, but these foul-ups increase plumbers’ costs and eventually raise prices for everyone. 

Plumbing Do’s and Don’ts 

Following these rules will help reduce the seriousness and frequency of plumbing problems— 

  • Make sure that everyone living in your home knows the locations of water shutoff valves and how to use them. If you’re unsure of valve locations, ask a plumber to give you a tour; then label each valve with a description of its function and instructions for turning it off. Shutoff valves cut the flow of water to a single fixture, a branch of the water supply system, or the entire house. If a pipe bursts, quickly stopping the flow of leaking water can prevent extensive damage. If you have a problem with a single fixture, turning off its shutoff valve lets you continue to use fixtures throughout the rest of your home and schedule a plumber’s visit during normal hours. 
  • Once or twice a year make sure that the main water shutoff valve to your home is working properly. 
  • Periodically check shutoff valves, exposed pipes, faucets, and your hot water heater for leaks. Regularly inspect ceilings and walls for signs of water damage. If you find a leak, have it repaired as soon as possible. 
  • If you have a septic-tank system, have it inspected regularly by a licensed professional. 
  • Install smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors near your water heater and furnace. 
  • Keep all flammable and combustible materials away from your hot water heater. 
  • To reduce the risks of fire or health hazards, have a plumber or heating and air-conditioning service check your water heater’s venting for proper draft and to make sure the room is properly ventilated. 
  • Dispose of grease or rendered-down fat in the trash; never pour it down a drain. 
  • Cover bathtub and shower drains with screens to prevent hair from clogging up their pipes. 
  • Chemical drain cleaners are extremely dangerous products—pay close attention to package directions and warning labels. When pouring a drain cleaner into a drain, avert your face and keep it as far away as possible from the bottle and the drain. 
  • If a drain is completely clogged, do not use a drain cleaner—it will likely produce a large pool of highly caustic water. Also, using a drain cleaner on completely clogged drains may simply enlarge the blockage. 
  • Don’t flush anything down the toilet that doesn’t belong there. Paper towels, feminine products, disposable diapers, cat litter, hair, and other items can clog up the works. 
  • Use care when operating your garbage disposer. Make sure that its on-off switch is not located in an area where it can be accidentally turned on. If you have children, consider buying a batch-feed model that won’t operate without a stopper. 
  • Heed warnings in your garbage disposer’s operating manual. Many models can become clogged if you try to dispose of coffee grounds, uncooked rice, etc. Always run a steady stream of water into your garbage disposer when in use. 
  • Periodically check the temperature setting of your hot water heater—most models should be set between 120° and 140°. Running the burner at lower temperatures saves energy costs and extends the life of the appliance. 3 

Extra Advice:
Common Plumbing Problems 

Although most plumbing work is performed correctly, mistakes do occur. Here are a few of the problems inspectors find most often. 

  • Drainpipes lack sufficient grade. As a result, waste does not flow with sufficient momentum and clogs occur. 
  • Pipes not properly supported. This can produce “hammering” in water supply pipes and clogs in drainpipes. 
  • Water heater or furnace flue connection has not been checked for proper draft. If a chimney is partially clogged, dangerous combustion products may accumulate inside the house. 
  • Insufficient ventilation in the room where the water heater or furnace is installed. Again, this prevents a proper draft and causes dangerous combustion products to accumulate. 
  • Water heater flue is dangerously close to combustible materials. A fire-resistant shield must be installed. 
  • Gas or water shutoff valve has not been installed for a water heater, furnace, dishwasher, or other appliance. This means the home’s total gas or water supply will have to be shut down if the appliance needs repairs. 
  • Electrical grounding has been eliminated. Water supply pipes serve as the ground for a home’s electrical system and as a ground in case of lightning. If plastic pipe has replaced disintegrated steel water supply pipes from the outside meter, this ground is eliminated and a substitute grounding system must be installed. 
  • Fixture trap leaks were improperly tightened. 
  • Toilet, sink, or other fixture not tightly secured. 
  • Hole through a wall where a pipe leaves house not properly sealed against moisture. 

Where to Complain

Better Business Bureaus

Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties
1112 S. Bascom Avenue
San Jose, CA 95128

All Other Bay Area Counties
1000 Broadway, #625
Oakland, CA 94607

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